Should America Take Sides?


Jonah Goldberg thinks so:

Another oddity, particularly given Obama’s high regard for the power of his own rhetoric, is that you’d think he’d be looking for ways to take credit for, and guide, the forces of reform in the region.

Larison responds:

It seems to me that this gets to the heart of what bothers so many people, especially conservatives, about Obama’s response to events in Libya. For them, American Presidents are supposed to want to exploit, appropriate, and control foreign political crises. Not doing this amounts to “dithering” or “failing to lead.” It may be that it really doesn’t occur to these critics that it is not the responsibility of the President of the United States to take credit for political forces that have nothing to do with him, much less to guide the political development of other countries.

This is indeed the core of one deep disagreement about this presidency. What I find refreshing about Obama is precisely his understanding that, even if he were in some way responsible for enabling the Arab 1848, he knows it would be counter-productive to say so. Yes, he made a speech in Cairo calling for more democracy a year or so before the uprising. More important, his very election and outreach to the Muslim world detoxified the West's image in the Arab world in a way that probably helped the next generation to be less distracted by the usual anti-Western, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel rhetoric and more focused on their own governments' responsibility for the backwardness and stagnation of the region. (He has failed in one area only in this respect: saving Israel from its slow suicide. But one suspects he is biding his time in exactly the same way. Only when Israelis realize he is right will his vision come to fruition. Right now, they prefer fear to hope.)

What's striking about Obama is his willingness not to take credit, not to constantly mouth off every news cycle, not to "guide" forces that need to reach their own conclusion first. Part of this restraint comes from the huge damage the previous administration did to America's hard and soft power - by demonstrating hard power's profound limits in Iraq and Afghanistan and wrecking the West's moral standing by embracing torture. But part is also in his nature.

No sudden moves. He waits until those he needs to engage have played their hand. Then he moves.

And not before.

(Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty.)