Like President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s Barack Obama leads passively, says Ron Brownstein in National Journal. He seems to believe words cannot speak louder than actions.
A common thread throughout Obama’s responses has been his belief that the U.S. image across the region is so toxic that it could undermine the change it seeks by embracing it too closely.
Prudence means deference to actors close to the scene.
“In Egypt, Obama deferred to local protesters; in Libya, he allowed France and England to drive the international debate toward military intervention—and only publicly joined them once the Arab League had signed on. By stepping back, Obama has effectively denied the region’s autocrats the opportunity to discredit indigenous demands for change as a U.S. plot.”
The downside of caution: “Delay, mixed messages, and his unilateral renunciation of the weapon of ringing rhetorical inspiration,” says Brownstein. “There’s been no Kennedyesque ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ moment for Obama.”
Which may also be a good thing. Brownstein is referring to a famous speech JFK made in Germany in June 1963 –in which he proclaimed in German, “I am a Berliner too.” As the Western half of the city resisted the Soviet Union’s efforts to impose a blockade, JFK expressed his simple human solidarity. Words worked because they spoke to a stalemate in the world’s thinking and defined an alternative, as only words could.
The democratization of the Arab world is the antithesis of mental stasis, an almost physical transformation in popular thinking about political participation whose ultimate political forms are just beginning to take shape. Eloquence from Washington at this moment might be formative. It was equally likely to be received as empty or arrogant. To the extent, Obama could wax idealistic, he would be called hypocritical. Words might be inspiring. They might be premature. They might be meaningless. Obama’s reticence is a sign of respect.
Which is not to say that presidential eloquence might not help some time soon
If and when Egypt holds elections this August, the reality of the country’s transition to democracy and its implications for peace in Israel/Palestine, will require U.S. response. Obama will have to confront the stalemate of the Israeli occupation and Palestinian resistance, the irrelevance of the two-state diplomatic dance, and the ugly reality of a wall of Occupation built to enforce racial and religious differences.
The opportunity for eloquence is obvious. Obama could go back to Cairo next fall or next year and say to the Israelis, a la Reagan to Soviets in 1987, “Tear this wall down.” But the White House staff will worry about the losing the Jewish base, while the National Security Council will counsel against setting expectations too high. Behind the scenes, AIPAC will sponsor Congressional resolutions to condemn the idea, duly approved by large congressional majorities, and the Obama’ 2012 reelection campaign’s fundraising goals will suffer. The Sunday morning experts will caution against pandering to the liberal base and the Arab Street. The birthers and loonier neoconservatives will say the very idea is proof the man is a closet Muslim.In short, Obama could pull a JFK or Reagan but only at the price of crossing the combined forces of the Israel lobby and the right-wing noise machine, just in time for Election Day 2012. There seems slight chance of that.
Our chief executive seems most likely to do like Ike: manage the status quo with mostly muted commentary. Is that such a bad example? Eisenhower authored one of the most effective public rebukes of Israel ever to emanate from the White House. During the Suez Crisis of 1956, Eisenhower declined to participate in the Anglo-French-Israeli effort to snatch the Suez Canal from Egypt’s nationalist president Gamal Nasser. Such a nakedly colonialist venture did not deserve U.S. support, and it failed. Eisenhower did not make a speech. He waited for everybody to exhaust themselves and then he made a decision–and made it stick. Sometimes that’s better.