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FT: A Choice of Minefields For Obama

May 19, 2011

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In an op-ed for the Financial Times, Philip Stephens writes that President Obama has a choice to make, either he can be a part of shaping the policy for the Arab world or he can continue to merely comment on it.

Barack Obama will be in Europe next week. He will be well received. Not much more. The president's lustre has faded. Mr Obama shows a better understanding than most of the tumultuous upheavals in the world. Yet a fair account would say that intelligent intent has not been matched by sufficient grit.

The speeches – the latest on the Arab uprisings – are fine; better than fine really. They acknowledge the complexities of the choices: the unenviable trade-offs between short-term security and long-term strategic interest, and the limitations as well as the reach of US power.

After a period of sustained and intense dithering, Mr Obama has now found a framework to put the US on the right side of the Arab Spring. Until recently, he had been an inadvertent prisoner of his predecessor. So anxious was he to signal a break with George W. Bush's democratic mission that Mr Obama embraced the pinched realism of narrow national interest. This latest speech puts him back on the side of democratic values.

The doubts are about follow- through. Having set out his hopes, will Mr Obama invest serious political capital to support them? His administration's decision this week to impose sanctions on Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime is one encouraging sign. But we have been here before.

You might say that Mr Obama has turned out to be too much of a, well, European. No one cheered louder than his peers on the other side of the Atlantic when he won the White House. Now these leaders see in the president an uncomfortable reflection of their own frailties.

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