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March 2, 2011 12:40 pm

To Be a Leader or a Friend

avatar by Morgan P. Muchnick

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Photo: Stacy Herbert

There are many eternal questions that have no real answer, including, what is better; to be feared and respected, or to be liked?  Parents certainly struggle with that question every day.  In addition to parents, national leaders continuously struggle with this question, none more so than the American President.  Different presidents have answered this question differently.  For instance, Bill Clinton desperately, almost pathologically, sought to be liked while George W. Bush never seemed to care as long as he, and by extension the United States, was feared or at least respected.  Clearly, President Obama has carried on the Clinton example.

Never have I witnessed a President literally beg the international community to like him.  If it were possible, I envision President Obama “friending” every nation on earth on a giant Facebook app, including Venezuela, Iran and North Korea.   One of the first foreign policy speeches given by President Obama was in Egypt apologizing for the United States role in the world.  He went on to offer more apology speeches in various parts of the world.  The question is; does President Obama’s desire for the US to be liked play a deleterious role in the world? Unfortunately, I believe so.

One simply needs to look at the world over the past two years, beginning with Russia’s kerfuffle with Georgia that began during the last few months of the Bush Presidency.  Most political observers knew that President Bush as a “lame duck” was not about to act aggressively, and then-candidate Obama was favored to win.  With the conclusion of a lame duck Presidency and the looming ascendency of a dovish President, the international security environment had fundamentally changed. Thus, Russia and Georgia both correctly deduced that the United States would be in an unfavorable position to act against the two nation’s battle over South Ossetia.

In the months that followed, there were myriad international events that seem to paint a picture of a world no longer afraid of the United States’ actions; militarily, economically or diplomatically.  For instance, not long after ascending to power, President Obama faced an interesting dilemma.  A sizeable group of pro-democracy protestors took to the streets in Iran, in spite of the direst of possible consequences.  This ended up being called the “Neda Revolution”, named after an Iranian woman killed by the regime’s security forces as they ruthlessly put down the protests.  In spite of calls from inside and outside of the US begging President Obama to support the protestors, he remained painfully silent, calling only to respect the safety of the protestors.  Anyone who knows something about the use of violence by the Iranian government would know this was a rhetorical and farcical request.

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Thus, out of a misplaced belief that the US has been too involved in world affairs or a fear that US meddling would only worsen the situation for the protestors, the United States failed to act in Iran.  Many will say military action would have been unrealistic, and I would agree.  However, we could have publically supported the movement or met with revolution leaders to bolster the movement, similar to what President Reagan did with anti-Soviet revolutionaries.  Instead, the message was clear; the US under President Obama would be a cautious and circumspect nation.  Say what you will about John McCain, but a US led by him would certainly not be defined by such adjectives.

In addition, during a relatively aggressive attempt by the Obama Administration to impose economic sanctions on Iran, Turkey and Brazil – two nations that have traditionally been strong economic and military allies of the United States – publically humiliated the US at the United Nations by meeting secretly with Iran and then offering a softer compromise.  For serious foreign policy wonks, this was a shocking event that would not have been conceivable under any other US president, be it Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.  It would have been even more inconceivable under a McCain Presidency.  This is not to say that the end result had much of a tangible effect, however, the larger point is that the perception of US leadership plays a role in foreign national decision making, such as this ill-conceived alliance.

This can also be seen in the tense situation in Pakistan involving Mr. Raymond Davis, an American contractor being held by Pakistani authorities on murder charges.  Mr. Davis was involved in a shooting but it appears that it was in self-defense.  Pakistani officials have been recalcitrant in their refusal to turn him over to the US, even though President Obama has personally demanded his release with the assurance that US law enforcement officials will investigate the incident in question.  Instead, Mr. Davis has been publically humiliated and is being used as a pawn for internal political reasons.

The abuse of Mr. Davis in the face of US demands should be seen as intolerable.  I cannot imagine any President allowing this to happen.  No one is advocating invading Pakistan but countries should fear that possibility if they abuse US citizens this way.  Whether it would be a good idea or not, no one really believes President Obama would order a Navy Seal team to attempt an extraction, or even economic retaliation.  If the Pakistanis can withstand a few moderately harsh speeches, they can pretty much do what they will with Mr. Davis.

The uncertain fate of Raymond Davis, along with the myriad other international flare-ups point to a picture of a world no longer fearful of US leadership.  When a nation as powerful and moral as the United States preemptively surrenders its role of global leader and instead unilaterally declares itself best buddies with all nations, the world becomes increasingly unstable.  It is a sad lesson that without a healthy fear of the United States, bad actors become emboldened.

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