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Middle East Mettle 

How Obama handles Egypt will help define his presidency.

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The protests spilling into the streets of Cairo signal a new challenge for the United States in a troubled world, but they also provide President Obama with an opportunity to show that his leadership principles and skills are worthy of the American presidency.

American presidents have historically been called upon to make leadership decisions that not only affect national security but impact the world at large. Abraham Lincoln displayed extraordinary leadership at arguably the most crucial time in American history as he chose a difficult path to victory in the American Civil War. After 1800, James Monroe proclaimed the Monroe Doctrine, taking a strong U.S. stand in favor of Western Hemisphere sovereignty. Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a vital decision to enter World War II while facing an economic crisis at home. John F. Kennedy stared down the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Richard Nixon took a courageous step to open relationships with China. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush governed forcefully as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed. George W. Bush set forth unwavering American principles of freedom following September 11, 2001.

Each president demonstrated courage and resolve during these crucial moments in American history. Their decisions had long-term impacts on American public policy and the collective welfare of Americans and others in the free world.

The jury is still out on President Obama’s leadership. There is unease about the principles on which he is basing his presidency — both domestically and internationally. How does this president portray America as an ally to our global partners throughout the world? As a vital nation, or just a passive one — no better and no worse than other nations?

While I’m reluctant to gratuitously criticize our president on sensitive foreign policy matters, some questions and observations are appropriate as recent Middle East developments unfold:
It’s uncertain who leads the unrest in Egypt — truly ordinary Egyptians seeking a representative democracy based on freedom, or anti-western political forces bent on seizing control and influencing the region’s balance of power?

Does our President have a plan for American/Middle East relations in the likely event that the Mubarak reign ends? And what if it doesn’t?

If Obama is content to let events “play out” in Egypt and accept emerging leadership there in the coming days, regardless of its quality or philosophy, expect more serious problems for the United States, as oil prices increase and tensions rise in the Middle East.

If Obama doesn’t calculate the potential for unrest to spread to Saudi Arabia, a major American ally, and take steps to prepare, the Middle East will be more poised for violence and turmoil that could require direct American involvement.

The Obama two-year record of standing up for freedom around the world and crafting policies that enhance it is suspect. When given the opportunity to affect citizen freedom in anti-American, oppressive Iran over the last two years, Obama stood largely mute, and the freedom uprising there has been quelled. Latin America is facing further dictator-influenced oppression. China’s international influence is growing as it calculates economic, energy and, eventually, military dominance.

What is striking — and disturbing — about President Obama is his appearance of being caught flat-footed as Egyptian events unfolded and his reticence to forcefully advocate a philosophy underscoring American values internationally in times of crisis. His State of the Union speech lacked any coherent philosophy of governing in a turbulent world. His talk of American prominence was largely limited to “competing” with other nations and supporting the American worker. That’s certainly OK, but it’s not a stirring revelation of American policy that inspires confidence.

I fear that Obama may simply be content to passively let international events unfold, afraid — or at least reluctant — to express concrete principles of American values and to convincingly relate them to world affairs and economic conditions. Perhaps he is merely being cautious as uncertainly grips international events, but maybe he really doesn’t know what to do in the face of sudden turmoil.

But that’s where presidents are called to demonstrate their grasp of American history and exercise wisdom that leads to sound public policies in a world teeming with those whose objectives are oppression and anti-American actions.

The anti-American sentiments which resulted in the tragedies of September 11, 2001, are still present across the globe, and it’s naive to believe that they’re not at work in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iraq — as well as in China, North Korea, Latin America and Russia. Those sentiments must be resisted by the President — explicitly and without equivocation.

Members of Congress are appropriately reluctant to openly criticize Obama in foreign policy matters at this time — tradition and prudence dictate reserve. But in the aftermath of media excitement over the unrest in Egypt and Yemen, sober assessments will need to be made about the “right” policies for America in reaction to such developments.

Yes, this is a test of sorts for our president. It requires him to make pronouncements that strengthen the confidence of Americans and freedom-loving people throughout the world. The sooner he speaks with conviction in support of the American ideals of freedom and democracy, and affirms America’s prominent leadership position in these dangerous times, the sooner he’ll show that he’s worthy of the high office he holds.

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