President Barack Obama wants you to know he cares about democracy in the Middle East. His rapidly multiplying press conferences and statements on Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and now Iran veer off into the ethereal stratosphere of epic poetry like an errant kite, embroidered with superlatives such as “historic” and “inspiring.” Obama appears to have forgotten he has the option to play a role in the events he is assiduously documenting in celluloid. One is now more likely to glimpse the President from banks of television sets in Best Buy than legislating the banks from the White House.
While Obama voluntarily paints himself into the twenty-four-hour news cycle's wall of irrelevancy, we all wistfully remember his inaugural speech in the Middle East in 2009. Its hollow promises echo through the corridor of missed opportunities in the fight for freedom and human rights in the region. Whether it is illegal West Bank settlements, extraordinary rendition or support for dictators, Obama’s Mid-East policy has consistently erred on the wrong side of history. Obama’s hope-and-change message was supposed to translate into results, not just for Americans, but for the entire world. While that message dies a slow death, impaled on the global spike in unemployment and despair, young people are forging ahead to write their own epic histories.
Obama wasn’t always chronically irrelevant. At the inception of the revolution in Egypt, searching for support in a dangerous and uncertain political climate, the youth looked to Obama for words of encouragement. Instead they witnessed an administration vacillating anxiously between calls for “reform” and the need for “democracy” like some kind of overwrought political metronome. While in diplomatic parlance “reform” made oblique reference to more of Mubarak and “democracy” to the revolution, this hesitancy at the tipping point rendered hollow Obama’s belated congratulations to Egyptians on their freedom.
When one considers that Obama immediately rapped the Iranian regime for abuses committed against protesters, his silence on the killing of nearly 300 protesters in Tahrir Square becomes stark. Adding insult to injury, he repeatedly called for restraint on both sides when it was clear that paid Mubarak supporters were the initiators of the violence. This is a well-worn political tactic used to lend legitimacy to despotic and oppressive regimes. The Palestinian cause is continually stymied in calls for restraint on “both sides,” despite the near-monopoly of violence by Israel. When the exception is portrayed as the rule, the oppressor and the oppressed become equal partners.
In a joint press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper held on February 4, Obama went even further, referring to Mubarak as a patriot and citing several phone conversations in which he urged Mubarak, not the youth, to spearhead reforms. It was evident that Obama’s recurrent mention of the need for an “orderly transition” indicated a desire to see Mubarak remain in power until the next election period, and he said as much on February 1 and on many other occasions. Why insist that the opposition be simply a party to change when the Egyptian people want nothing to do with the old regime? Why was Obama deferential to Mubarak throughout the revolution? In an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Super Bowl Sunday, Obama explained that Mubarak’s policies on Israel—in other words, his acquiescence to Israeli outrages in the West Bank and Gaza—and his participation in the War on Terror (interestingly, it was O’Reilly who pointed out that this referred to Mubarak’s unsavoury role in extraordinary rendition) have made him an American partner and supporter.
It is clear that Obama has wasted his political capital in crosstalk. His subsequent foray into blow-by-blow punditry wouldn’t be quite so irritating if he didn’t have the power to impact the situations he is now “following.” If he wants to keep that current, he should take up tweeting, like Sarah Palin.
However, it shouldn’t elicit surprise when Obama fails to fully grasp his opportunity. He is the Democratic president who insisted on bipartisanship on a variety of campaign promises, including health care legislation, with a hostile Republican Party. Who didn’t see their refusal to sign off on his policies from a mile away? It is part of their very symbolism to be the elephant in the room. But the Republicans aren’t to blame for either blocking or diluting hope and change. They have never pretended to be anything other than the corporate whips and fearmongers they are. It was up to Obama to seize the moment, and the majority. But it seems he just doesn’t get it. Until it is too late, and then he comments on it. The question is no longer whether Obama is a man of action or a man of words. The question has become, “When will he shut up?”
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