How Obama's Recent Speeches Complicate American Foreign Policy

The troubling implications for the United States in Egypt, in Libya, and on the Israel-Palestine question


Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Barack Obama's liberal supporters have frequently criticized the president for what they perceive as undue silence on the domestic issues that so define their -- and his -- political priorities. How strange it is, then, that in the arena in which the president's expertise is most visibly lacking, he is disturbingly verbose. The most recent example of an overeager clumsiness is the bomb he has tossed into the long-standing feud between Israel and the Palestinians. But it is not the first mistake he has made in the region.

The Middle East is awash in turmoil. It has come to be known as the "Arab Spring," although whether the events will turn out to be spring or winter is still unclear, and what has been described as a succession of pro-democracy uprisings could yet turn out, as so many have, to be, at a domestic level, the mere trading of one oppression for another.

It would be appropriate, perhaps, to make note of the "seat-of-the-pants" policies we seem to be following -- war here, sanctions there, silence elsewhere.

Rather than watching events unfold, however, the president, confident in his own analytical insights and persuasive abilities, wades in and takes us with him. In Egypt, with Hosni Mubarak agreeing to step down at the end of his current term and take his heir-apparent son with him (which would have allowed time for Egyptians to develop a new constitutional system), the president, at a time when a little public silence would have been appropriate, took to the airwaves to declare that "soon" was not good enough. Mubarak had to step down immediately. Demonstrators, emboldened, again took to the streets, new violence erupted, and Mubarak left behind a vacuum -- the filling of which remains up for grabs, and along with it, Egypt's role as the champion of peaceful Arab-Israeli relations.

Some have expressed a fear that, if given time, Mubarak would have rebuilt his base, crushed the movement, and reneged on his promise. That would not have happened. I have traveled frequently to Egypt and have met on a regular basis with top members of an Egyptian military that is heavily dependent on U.S. support. A president willing to operate with more diplomacy and less verbosity would have simply extracted -- in private -- a commitment from the Egyptian army to ensure that (a) Mubarak would indeed step down, and (b) the country's policies toward Israel would remain unchanged. Instead we are left with uncertainty.

We are at war now in Libya (I know, I know -- it's supposedly not a war, although when American forces fire weapons at members of another country's military, a war is exactly what it is). It is a war the president has taken us into without authorization from the Congress, which under the Constitution is the only body with the right to commit the United States to war. We are at war in Libya because a force about which we know little rose up in protest against the country's dismal dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, about which little good can be said. No sane person will miss Qaddafi if he is forced to relinquish power and disappear from the international stage. But even though Americans of all political stripes rightly despise Qaddafi, until the actual day of U.S. intervention, no president, including this one, had ever declared that he had to go, that he had to go immediately, and that it was our mission to make sure it happened. This is what is known as flying by the seat of one's pants, making up policy as we go.

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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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