Monday, June 29, 2009

The President's Parade of Horribles

Former French President Charles de Gaulle observed, “To govern is always to choose among disadvantages.” This wisdom was amplified by Canadian rock super-group Rush, who advised, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Both axioms are applicable to the set of foreign policy challenges facing U.S. President Barack Obama.

The president of the United States has a unique job description. On any major global issue, he must take a position and, regardless of what stance he adopts, there will be consequences. At times, a leader may want to reserve judgment on a tricky situation of international importance, and that’s okay – if that leader is the prime minister of Burkina Faso. The American president, however, has no such luxury.

Most prominent among the parade of horribles presented to President Obama are the imbroglios in Iran and North Korea.

In the former case, a corrupt theocracy rigged the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then cracked down viciously on the civilian protests that followed. Obama’s response options included detached equivocation, which was his original tack, and stern condemnation of the Iranian regime, to which he correctly switched.

Even if one disagrees with the wisdom of the president’s initial reluctance to antagonize Persian rulers, one can see the logic that visible American support might have undermined the protesters’ credibility in the Middle East. And anyway, for all the grief Obama got for referring to Iran’s Ayatollah Khameini as “the Supreme Leader,” perhaps the president was merely speaking of himself in the third person.

North Korea, meanwhile, presents a more immediate problem. Its dictator, Kim Jong Il, has contemplated launching a nuclear missile toward Hawaii on or around the Fourth of July. In this case, President Obama must choose among strong diplomacy, deploying missile defence, and intercepting or boarding North Korean ships.

Obama has no ideal options in dealing with Iran and North Korea and, whatever choices the president makes, the consequences may not become clear for some time. But choose he must for, as the Romans would say, “Qui tacet consentit” (He who is silent consents).

Commentator Dick Morris has written that prior to World War II, Germany and Italy were emboldened by the West’s acquiescence to the Japanese occupation of Manchuria during the 1930s. When you are president, the world is watching – and that doesn’t just mean Newsweek, Mr. Obama. Harsher observers with unpleasant intentions are sizing you up and figuring what they can get away with.

America’s true strength is not born of its military or its missiles – although this power is nothing to sneeze at – but of its concept and practice of freedom. As another Frenchman, Victor Hugo, put forth, “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.” When Ronald Reagan stood at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and urged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” those words were more effective than tanks or bombs could have been.

No sensible person suggests the United States should go to war over who is president of Iran, or to depose the maniacal gremlin who rules North Korea. Obama’s great strength is his oratory, or so we are told. Let him deploy it, then, in defence of liberty.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.