In last night's yawn producing set of stitched together rerun snippets from past speeches, the POTUS spent barely ten percent of his numerous words on foreign policy. This continues and, arguably expands, his well-established record of undervaluing US foreign relations.
Either the Nice Young Man From Chicago is unaware that foreign governments and opinion molders parse the annual Ain't-My-Administration-Great festival or he knows and cares not at all. In either event the absence of foreign affairs constituted a species of unilateral disavowal of American status as a Great Power.
The casting aside of foreign relations other than pro forma mention of our getting out of Iraq, our fine troops in Afghanistan, and ritualistic condemnation of the usual adversary, Iran, sends a clear signal to the world that it and its petty problems fly below our president's radar. His evident disengagement from the affairs of the world indicates to friend, foe, and uncommitted alike that the US has only the most limited interest in pursuing its own national interests.
The denial of the world comes at a moment during which a volatile and critical region of the world--the Arab Mideast and North Africa--seems to be lurching toward a tipping point which has the potential of being world historical in importance. The "Jasmine Revolution" may or may not prove to be a permanent success for democracy of the bottom up sort. But, its having occurred, the mere fact that a firmly entrenched authoritarian regime supported by not only the former colonial power, France, but the West generally was overthrown by popular demonstrations and the unwillingness of the armed forces to gun down their fellow citizens has set (literal) fire to similar movements in other countries, most importantly Egypt.
The silence of Mr Obama last night serves to continue his rejection of the assertive support of democracy by the Bush/Cheney administration beyond the point of absurdity into the venue of the counterproductive. Admittedly the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/neocon ninnie notion of using armed invasion as a tool to foster democracy was a world class blunder, but that in no way discredited the necessity of promoting democracy by other means, particularly the support of indigenous tendencies or groups.
The administration appears to be possessed by the view that any open support by the US of any pro-democracy effort in any Arab or Muslim majority country will doom the effort to failure. The Deep Thinkers of the administration took this position openly in the wake of the demonstrations against the mullahocracy and the stolen presidential election. More recently the same cover was employed implicitly to excuse the hands-off position of the US during the run-up to the "Jasmine Revolution."
This contention is ludicrous on the face. Interviews and opinion surveys have shown repeatedly that people throughout the world look to the US for support of democracy and the other features customarily associated with that form of government. The same sources document the severe disappointment felt by people when the government of the US either fails to support democratic aspirations, or, worse, openly supports authoritarian regimes for reasons of state.
The situation which developed rapidly in Egypt yesterday cried out for a statement by the American president. The demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere not only were the largest anti-government action in many decades, it also constituted a direct challenge to the US president and the policies of his administration. The challenge was simply: On which side does the US stand?
The president and his administration have supported the thirty year rule of Hosni Mubarak both publicly and privately in recent weeks and days. There are reasons of state policy which would appear to compel our linkage with and support for the Mubarak regime. However, these reasons--the moribund Mideast "peace process" and combating violent political Islam--can be both overstated and, more importantly, overtaken by events.
The US has nailed its flag to the Egyptian mast ever since Cairo kicked the Soviets out and realigned (sort of) with the US. This in turn led to the Camp David Accords and the "normalization" of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel. The substance of the post-Camp David years has been much less than the promise or the appearance. The most substantial benefits of the Egyptian realignment were, no surprise here, awarded to Egypt. The US has tied its aid to Egypt to the aid furnished to Israel with results which have been profitable for the Cairo regime, to put it mildly.
As a "partner" with the US in the "global war on terror," Egypt has proven to be less obstreperous than Pakistan but not by much. The Egyptian government has done little if any cooperation beyond its own borders while serving as a pointman for the Organization of the Islamic Conference (along with Pakistan) on the various proposals to restrict freedom of speech by means of a UN resolution intended to protect Islam against any perceived attack--including the truth about the religion.
Domestically the Egyptian government has shown itself less than eager to protect the basic rights of its Coptic Christian population against outrages at the hands of the Muslims. To say that Cairo has sat on its hands as Copts were murdered is only to tell it like it has been--and will be.
Simultaneously the Mubarak regime has shown its willingness to pervert the processes of democratic elections to assure its hold on power. The recent parliamentary election gave clear indications of having been even more bogus than its predecessors. The long arm and very heavy hand of the internal security organs have been evermore in evidence such that Egypt of recent months has a strong resemblance to the Iraq of Saddam Hussein.
In short, Egypt has become a heavier liability for American interests and influence in the region. Bluntly, the costs of linking us to Egypt have far outweighed the benefits by any rational calculus.
The spread of anti-government demonstrations across Egypt in the aftermath of the "Jasmine Revolution" have given the US a perfect opportunity to get on the right side of the political dynamic in Egypt. The moment is all the more propitious in that so far the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, all advocates of political Islam including the violent sort, have not been at the forefront of events. Indeed, the Brotherhood shows signs of having been caught by the same surprise as the government.
Had Mr Obama made even brief mention of the anti-government demonstrations, it would have done much to embolden the reformers in the street. A favorable reference, even if of the most attenuated sort, would have gone far to broadening the base of support for the pro-democracy movement. It might even have assured that the working class and small merchant segment of society would have been motivated to get off the sidelines and join with the demonstrators.
The "Jasmine Revolution": succeeded in large part because the workers of Tunisia along with the lower middle class linked with the unemployed university graduates to oppose the autocracy. The same would be the case in Egypt, but only if the cautious came to believe that success and not simply death or torture would be the most probable outcome. This sea change could have occurred if Mr Obama had only said a few kind and accurate words concerning events in Cairo earlier that day.
Admittedly, the architects of foreign policy like to be slow, cautious, incremental. Diplomats tend to be conservative, prone to being opposed to boat rocking. But, in the real world of real people with real hopes, fears, frustrations, and aspirations, fortune often favors the bold. Events by their very magnitude and pace may preclude the endless rounds of interagency working groups, endless processes of staffing papers, of seeking approval up a never ending chain of command.
This is what happened in Tunisia. It is what may be happening in Egypt. It is what could happen in Iran. The US foreign policy community by virtue of its size, complexity, and attendant inertia is ill-equipped to take proper advantage of fleeting opportunities. The president is not so limited. As Richard Nixon demonstrated, it is possible for a president to act quickly and take advantage of a changing international dynamic.
The situations in Tunisia and Egypt as in numerous other countries in the Arab and Muslim world are essential in the definition of what the US stands for as well as what it opposes. When the US president is silent he concedes the field to the adherents of violent political Islam. Losing is bad enough. Losing by default is even worse.
So get a grip on this: By his ignoring the world, particularly the unfolding drama in the Mideast, President Obama is losing by default. Arguably, he is throwing the match.
The State of the Union Address is a perfect opportunity to tell the world just where the US stands, what it stands for, and to what it stands in opposition. This is necessary for the stability of the world. Staking a position is what Great Powers are expected to do. And, whether or not Mr Obama and his ideological soulmates like the idea or repudiate it, the US is a Great Power.
So, Mr Obama, the message is simple: Act like you are the chief executive of a Great Power, in point of fact, the best of the Great Powers. Anything less is to duck your personal "Sputnik moment."