Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Why bin Laden's death doesn't signal a new Obama

As pollster attempt to measure the bump that Obama gets from the operation that took out Osama bin Laden, let's remember first of all that there is a big difference between ordering a military strike to take out the most wanted man in America's war against terror and the day-to-day foreign policy dealing with all the foreign crises and situations around the world. Obama has shown a willingness to order military strikes and the use of Predator drones in Afghanistan. He has, with lots of dithering internal debate, maintained our forces in Afghanistan. He has ordered our forces to attack Qaddafi's forces in Libya without consulting Congress until after the fact. But he still has demonstrated the same desire to believe that his personal leadership can alter the behavior of rogue nations such as Iran and Syria. Thus, we are not seeing anew Obama. Richard Cohen, no right-winger, wishes that the order to go after Osama signaled a new Obama, but holds out little hope that we are going to see such a desired evolution in President Obama.
For too long now the Obama administration has shown a touching but sometimes counterproductive sensitivity for the sensitivities of the Muslim world. It has proceeded as if it was more important to be liked than feared and as if some differences were not fundamental but always a product of misunderstanding. This, though, is not the case. The United States can do little to mollify Islamists and others who seek the obliteration of Israel and the return of holy Jerusalem to the Muslim fold. It can do little with bigots who loathe America’s culture of tolerance — for all religions, for gays, for lesbians and, of course, for women.

We shall see if the killing of Osama signals the emergence of a new Obama. After all, it was being planned and rehearsed while elsewhere the president was dawdling in Libya, waiting for NATO approval, Arab League endorsement and U.N. authorization. Even then, he quickly flipped the hot potato to NATO, which is a sturdy acronym but a flaccid fighting force. For a while, NATO dithered and the United States withheld the maximally efficient A-10 aircraft, sending Moammar Gaddafi a mixed message: We want you out, but not all that much. He has decided to stay.

It pains me to say this, but on occasion Obama can really be the lefty caricatured by right-wingers. They took the measure of him right at the start (January 2009) when he joined a coven of conservative columnists for dinner at the home of George F. Will. It was as if Obama thought he could charm these guys, reason with them — that their antipathy toward him was based on some sort of misunderstanding or maybe something personal (see how charming I am) and not, as it was and remains, their ideology.

Obama attempted something similar with Iran. He wanted accommodation, less belligerence — as if the crackpot regime, fascist in all but name, might misunderstand us or we them. They know very well who we are, and we should know who they are. The same holds for Syria. Once again, we have been much too nice with a murderous regime, offering praise where none was warranted or earned. The regime of Bashar al-Assad was hardly persuaded by the compliments. It still kills with abandon.

A nation like the United States can sometimes be liked, sometimes feared and sometimes both. The choice ought to be ours — liked is nice, but not at the cost of our principles and values. When it came to killing bin Laden, Obama clearly chose to do what he had to do — what he ought to have done — whether or not Pakistan or anyone else liked it.