Monday, February 14, 2011

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on President Obama's Response to Egypt: Failure to Lead

A brief postscript to my two previous postings about the Egyptian revolution--the first reflecting on the inconsistent way in which the American government approaches the aspirations of people to democratic self-governance in different parts of the globe, the second on Nicholas Kristof's appeal to President Obama to speak out forcefully to condemn the violence in Egypt:

I agree with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's analysis of Obama's behavior during the Egyptian crisis as not in the least praiseworthy--specifically, as a failure to lead.  Boteach: 

Obama was supposed to be a transformational president. An African-American had risen to the highest office in the land and the most powerful post on earth. Surely, even more than President George W. Bush -- a son of privilege and wealth -- he would emerge as a champion of freedom and democracy. Surely such unmatched eloquence would be employed in the cause of human liberty.

But we were all given pause when Obama, in the first months of his presidency, embraced dictator Hugo Chavez with a wide grin and bowed to the tyrant-king of Saudi Arabia. Chavez had called George Bush 'the devil' from the rostrum of the United Nations and has singled-handedly dismantled democracy in Venezuela, throwing his political opponents in jail. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia presides over a regime so ruthless that women are imprisoned and lashed simply for being in a closed space with a man who is not their husband and can't even drive a car. Perhaps these were just glitches. Perhaps Obama really did have a freedom agenda tucked away that he would finally pull out.

But from there it only got worse, with Obama's foreign policy repudiating most of President Bush's democracy-building gestures and opting instead for Kissingerian realpolitik, with America prepared to do business with almost any kind of dictator so long as it served our interests. Obama even won a Nobel Peace Prize simply for not being George Bush. We thought Obama's lauding of tyrants reached its zenith with Obama holding only his second State dinner last month to honor the President of China, one of the most oppressive regimes on earth. It's one thing to do business with China. But to honor its brutal leadership?

Now with Egypt the circle is complete.

 It's about leadership.  And it's about human rights.  This president has squandered opportunity after opportunity to demonstrate transformative leadership--at a moment when such leadership is imperative if American democracy is to survive--because he has prevaricated again and again on matters of human rights.

And the results for our national economic, political, and cultural life have been disastrous and will continue to be disastrous.  Obama's weakness as a leader and his waffling on issues of human rights have opened the door to a recrudescence of the worst excesses of an emboldened political right.  As we face economic collapse, we must now contend, in state legislature after state legislature and in D.C., with challenge upon challenge to women's rights, to the new health care program, to the human rights of immigrants, to gay and lesbian rights, and so forth.

These enervating culture-war debates siphon off much-needed energy to address our dire economic problems--which have to be addressed effectively if we expect our democratic system of governance to thrive again.  And none of this need have happened, had the leader we thought we were electing--with his clear pre-election vision of human rights--seized the opportunity to lead that he was given with a large popular mandate in the last elections.

I am ashamed at which this promising president has made of his presidency.  His response to the Egyptian situation only deepens my shame.  As Nicholas Kristof notes, the Obama administration desperately needs to "learn the future tense" if we expect the future to be bright either for the United States or the rest of the world.

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