I’m sitting and watching President Obama’s speech on the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. He is eloquent as usual, giving compelling visuals of the protestors demanding a free government amid great personal peril. He is quoting Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He has taken charge of the situation, endorsing the determination of the people of Egypt to throw out their dictator.
But say what he will, it’s too late for Obama. Throughout the riveting two weeks of the popular uprising in Egypt, the leader of the free world simply refused to lead. Obama watched the events unfold in Egypt just as you and I did. He was afraid to push, afraid to nudge, afraid to call for the autocrat Mubarak to immediately resign from his illegitimate perch. Obama reacted; the people of Egypt led. America as a symbol of global freedom has been significantly diminished as a result.
Obama was supposed to be a transformational president. An African-American had risen to the highest office in the land and the most powerful post on earth. Surely, even more than President George W. Bush – a son of privilege and wealth – he would emerge as a champion of freedom and democracy. Surely such unmatched eloquence would be employed in the cause of human liberty. Obama would surely be conducting a new freedom train that would liberate oppressed people throughout the world.
We were all given pause, however, when Obama, in the first months of his presidency, embraced dictator Hugo Chavez with a wide grin and bowed to the tyrant-king of Saudi Arabia.
Chavez had called George Bush “the devil” from the rostrum of the United Nations and has singled-handedly dismantled democracy in Venezuela, brutalizing his political opponents and throwing them in jail. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia presides over a regime so ruthless that a woman can be imprisoned and lashed simply for being in a closed space with a man who is not her husband.
Perhaps, one might have thought, these were just glitches. Perhaps Obama really did have a freedom agenda tucked away that he would pull magically out of his hat.
But from there it only got worse, with Obama repudiating most of Bush’s democracy-building gestures as unrealistic neocon ideology and opting instead for Kissingerian realpolitik. Under Obama America is back to doing business with almost any kind of dictator so long as it serves our interests. Obama even won a Nobel Peace Prize simply for not being George Bush.
We thought Obama’s lauding of tyrants had reached its zenith when our president held only his second state dinner last month to honor the president of China, one of the most oppressive regimes on earth. The newly crowned Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner is, along with his wife, rotting in jail. But the Chinese president is eating Maine lobster at the White House.
Now with Egypt the circle is complete. Four hundred million Arabs live under brutal tyranny with barely any freedoms. Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous state. A gift was handed to Obama – who has done next to nothing for imprisoned people around the world – when the citizens of Tunisia and Egypt began agitating for their liberty. It received one line in Obama’s State of the Union address. And even as the Egyptian people showed they were ready to endure almost any hardship to be free, our president simply watched to see what would happen, got it wrong repeatedly, and suddenly found his voice only when it was all over.
You would think the president of the United States would have given a speech, when the demonstrations first started, declaring, “The people of Egypt, sovereign in their own land, are demanding the immediate resignation of a president who has presided unlawfully over them for three decades and suppressed political dissent. The people of the United States and their president stand squarely with the people of Egypt and demand Mr. Mubarak’s immediate compliance.”
Instead, we got confusing talk from Obama and Secretary of State Clinton about how the transition to democracy could be messy and Mubarak needed time. Time? Three decades isn’t enough? If you give a dictator a finger, he takes the whole hand. He wasn’t going anywhere. He had to leave now.
So here we are. The greatest democracy on earth, led by a man whose rhetoric and actions on freedom are in conflict. If Obama really believed it wasn’t wise for Mubarak to leave immediately, why didn’t he say it the day of Mubarak’s resignation? Rather than invoking Gandhi and Martin Luther King, he should have invoked the French Revolution, Iran, and Hamas as a way of illustrating the perils of democracy.
The reason he didn’t is that when it comes to promoting democracy Obama is a profoundly weak leader, forever afraid to take a stand, oddly bereft of strong personal convictions on human liberty and freedom, believing to his core that while people deserve to be free, only a super-strong government that does most of the work for them can guarantee their freedom.
Obama may be our first African-American president, but he is most definitely not a product, nor a student, of the civil rights movement.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is an internationally renowned writer and broadcaster. His most recent book is “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.” His website is www.shmuley.com.