President Obama has not always embraced the notion that he is the leader of the free world. Far too often, he has preferred to pose as a figure of the post-American era. He has been quick to apologize for America’s flaws and too besotted with multilateralism and multiculturalism to assert that the model of American liberty is right for the rest of the world. Nor has he been a consistent or even a particularly assertive advocate for human rights. Indeed, his predecessor’s freedom agenda, a sometimes flawed but still deeply principled effort to expand the reach of democracy and to topple tyrants, was something he often consciously rejected. He stood largely mute when protesters took to the streets in Tehran and seemed only excited by the rise to power of Islamist movements during the Arab Spring, a development that was no victory for freedom.
But today during his eulogy in South Africa for the late Nelson Mandela, the president did seize this unique moment to draw the world’s attention to that same freedom agenda that he has often spurned. Mixed in with amorphous calls for peace and the need to deal with inequality, he said this:
There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.
While Obama must be considered as someone who has largely stood on the sidelines in the manner that he described, it was important for someone at the funeral to call attention, even indirectly, to the fact that the vast majority of African countries fit his description.
Nelson Mandela was, as both Max Boot and I wrote last week, one of the pivotal historical figures of the last century. His embrace of racial reconciliation and peace was crucial to his country’s future and set an example for the world. But one of the flaws in this truly great man’s public persona was his inability to discard the alliances he made during his struggle for freedom with despotic regimes. Mandela’s alliances with the Soviet Union, Communist Cuba, and terrorists like Yasir Arafat were marriages of convenience forced on him due to the fact that the Cold War left him without significant Western friends. But as Seth Lipsky wrote yesterday in Haaretz, the Soviets were no friends of freedom even when they were backing Mandela and his African National Congress. Unfortunately, though Mandela embraced democracies in power and sought to make his own country free, he was unwilling to drop these unsavory friends once in power. Thus, despotic regimes, like that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, never lost South Africa’s support.
President Obama’s eloquent praise of Nelson Mandela largely did him and the United States credit. But he needs to take his own advice about speaking out against tyranny. If convention called for him to shake the hand of Cuban dictator Raul Castro at the funeral, he shouldn’t lose the opportunity to call for freedom in Cuba or to demand the release of Alan Gross, an American aid worker who remains imprisoned there. It is a shame that he did not do so. It should be remembered that while Mandela chose peace, he did not accept the continuation of tyranny; he ended it. When President Obama embraces détente with the tyrannical government of Iran and puts the issues of human rights and terrorism on the back burner, he gives the lie to his praise of Mandela. If, instead of seeking to empower rogue regimes, the president were to dedicate the foreign policy of his second term to a renewed freedom agenda, he would do much to burnish his own legacy as well as doing honor to the man he claims as his hero.