In 2008, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton questioned whether then- Sen. Barack Obama would be prepared for the unexpected 3 a.m. phone call should he become president. The voters concluded he would be. When that call came with the Arab Spring, Obama put it on hold.
Indecisiveness has cost. Like a gambler who demands to see the cards on the table before he makes a move, Obama waited as first the Tunisian, then Egyptian, and the Yemeni governments teetered. Only when protestors sealed the autocrats' fate did he place his bet. The cynicism is self-defeating: Protestors doubt U.S. commitment, while surviving kings and strongman question whether their decades-long U.S. partnership has value.
Also crippling American influence is Obama's desire to lead from behind. Multilateralism builds legitimacy, but not all multilateralism is the same: American leadership influences outcomes. When the White House works through allies, the United States becomes a slave to their agendas. Obama's partners in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey supported the most radical Islamist factions. Standing aloof does not create even playing fields. Because countries support proxies and factions who share their values, American passivity merely means those who share our vision of freedom, individual liberty, accountability, and democracy remain the poorest resourced. Conversely, American taxpayer money should never be an entitlement to hostile regimes or those who embrace democracy only so long as it serves their purpose.
Too often, American policy is reactive, not proactive. Presidents manage crises; they seldom plot coherent strategy. Obama is no different: In 2022, will the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis dominate Egypt? Will the Yemeni government control its territory? Will Turks enjoy free speech? Will Palestinians eschew terrorism? Will Israel and Palestine live side-by-side in peace? Will sectarianism decline? Will Iran have nuclear weapons? The president must answer these questions so the United States can plot strategy to achieve the desired outcome.
Obama is an inspirational speaker. Alas, this strength compounds another problem. The gap between American rhetoric and policy reality is huge. Past humanitarian declarations mock Syrians, who suffer daily death tolls which make Iraq and Afghanistan look placid. This sparks corrosive cynicism among ordinary Arabs. Manifested as a failure to uphold redlines, the gap also breeds enemy overconfidence increasing the likelihood of conflict. It is better sometimes to speak less and carry a big stick than speak often, and do little.