We’ve come a long way in the past six months. Just a half a year ago, our nation was being led by a boy who never grew up, and who given his druthers would probably be playing war games on his Atari. Unfortunately for us, the “Atari” turned out to be the streets of Baghdad, and the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Well, alright – he also played in the mountains of Tora Bora, but he had to quit before the game was over; perhaps mommy was yelling that he was late for dinner.
Now, by contrast, we have a real adult to lead us. A smart, serious man. Given the contrast with his predecessor, it’s not hard to see why he’s so popular. But being only human, Obama isn’t equally well suited to every task. For example, when it comes to making the complex assessments that are needed to guide our economy, I’m not sure he has much more insight than the rest of us. It is in one area where I think he particularly excels. And you can tell that area from the title of this blog post. If we are lucky, when Barack leaves the White House, he won’t stay away from Washington for too long. This guy would be an ideal Secretary of State. His greatest gifts appear to lie in international diplomacy.
We’ve already seen his talents on display during his recent trip to the Middle East and, in particular, his speech in Cairo. He let the entire Muslim world know that in important ways, he’s one of them – a member of a family that includes Muslims and a man who has himself had considerable association with Islam -- and yet he also lectured Muslims about anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. He sharply criticized the continued building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, while also castigating those in the Arab world who seem to condone violence against innocent Israelis. Most importantly, he stayed non-committal on all the hot-button issues, such as how far the Israelis need to go in dismantling the existing settlements and whether the state of Israel is a “Jewish State” (one that should always be controlled by Jews) or merely a “Jewish Homeland” (a safe-haven for Jews, but one that they shouldn’t necessarily be able to control if they lose their majority due to demographic shifts). Thus, Barack’s skill as a diplomat enabled him to appear (a) passionate about peace, (b) extremely even-handed, and (c) ultimately supportive of whatever solutions to the hot-button issues each of us would like him to adopt.
That, my friends, is a diplomat.
Still, what I’m marveling about this week is less his verbal skills at Cairo, as his lack of verbiage when it comes to Iran. Here’s a guy who loves not simply to talk but to deliver dramatic speeches. Whenever an opportunity arises to wax eloquent about peace or justice, Barack is there – with two parts substance and three parts style (or is it the other way around?), gathering more and more adoring fans with every word. If someone were to collect the best political speeches in America in the last twenty years, you’d surely have to go far down the list before finding an oration delivered by someone OTHER than Barack Obama.
In light of those facts, the idea of Barack talking about the democracy movement in Iran would appear to be a match made in heaven. Even a middle school student should be able to find some words to describe the righteousness of that movement and the heroism of its members – not to mention the evil that they are trying to resist. Barack could have given his own version of the “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech, which was arguably the highlight of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency. Barack’s dramatic rebuke to the Iranian Mullahs could have played to equally rave reviews, both here and in Europe.
Only it wasn’t meant to be. Notwithstanding the knocking of opportunity and all the posturing of the Republican leadership, Barack stood down. Always the diplomat, always the savvy observer of international relations, Barack realized that any speechifying here in America would have undermined the cause in Iran. The exciting thing about what is happening in Tehran is the home-grown nature of its democracy movement. Despite the kind of oppression that defeated the Chinese youth at Tiananmen Square, Iran’s resisters actually have a chance to succeed without interference from the West. So why not see if that can happen? Why allow Ahmadinejad to characterize the battle on the streets as one between loyal Iranians (his supporters) versus American puppets (the opposition)? Why, in other words, should we re-create parallels between what is happening in Iran and what happened in Iraq, when President Bush attempted to impose democracy on the people before the conditions on the ground seemed conducive to it?
During the lead up to the Iraq War, it seems like all the “adults” in America were in lockstep with Bush and Cheney. Hillary, Biden, Dodd, you name it – virtually all the Presidential hopefuls were cheerleading for the war. And I don’t doubt that these same cast of characters, if they had been elected, would have delivered, or at least tried to deliver, their own boffo speech in support of the Iranian resistance movement. Back in 2002, Barack’s was a voice in the wilderness in urging us to stay OUT of Iraq. He predicted exactly what would happen there, and I suspect he predicted what would have happened had he flexed his oratorical muscles about Tehran. You see, the dissenters in Iran already have plenty of motivation. But with speechifying from Washington, the loyalists would have gained some motivation of their own. And what is worse, those heroes in Tehran who THINK they are in charge of something exciting, important and authentic could have come to see themselves as mere minions of the great Empire of the West.
Barack called it right in 2002, and he called it right in 2009 as well. Chalk it up to self-discipline and sound judgment.
I remember back in early-2007 attending a fundraiser for candidate Obama. Back then, he was well back in the polls to Hillary Clinton, and all the pundits – most of whom, no doubt, had supported the Iraq War from its inception -- were questioning Barack’s “foreign policy experience.” When he spoke to the crowd, however, he told us that he actually had more confidence in his foreign policy insights than in his domestic policy knowledge. I knew instantly that he meant what he said.
Barack may or may not prove to be a competent President when it comes to health care reform, stimulating the economy, or maintaining a sane budget. Yet at the end of the day, if he is to be judged a truly great leader, you can almost certainly chalk it up to his foreign policy instincts and skills as a diplomat. Suffice it to say that after our last President, we were due for an improvement.