WASHINGTON, February 15, 2012 – Each February, Americans enjoy a holiday to reflect upon the accomplishments of their Presidents.
In this election year, the place to start is with the tenure of President Barack Hussein Obama.
Back on Election Day 2008, some giddy enthusiasts were already considering where to place a likeness of Obama on the face of Mt. Rushmore along side the craggy visages of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Teddy Roosevelt.
However, they and we did not truly know President Obama then—his record and his substantive views were actually more opaque than crisp.
From Inauguration Day, our latest President has likely shouldered a modern version of the burden poignantly described by President George Washington: “I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn to precedent”.
In the 37 ensuing months, we have come to understand that our 44th President is a man of intervention in the cause of liberation.
Perhaps President Obama’s seemingly boundless penchant for intervention emerges from his DNA and the center of his very being.
His paternal father and grandfather fought against British rule in the East African Protectorate that became Kenya in 1963. His maternal great-uncle helped liberate prisoners at Buchenwald in 1945.
At core, our President is a “liberation man”—but does he fully understand that liberty simply opens the door to productive exercise of freedom?
Moreover, does President Obama believe that individuals can be better off learning fundamental lessons after they err and then try to rectify their own mistakes?
At home, President Obama has seen fit on numerous occasions to insert himself into the minutiae of decision-making, whether spotlighting “teachable” local moments, calling out discordant American states, or bringing managers and corporations to task.
Abroad, President Obama did bring Osama bin Laden to justice and he has made progress degrading the leadership and capabilities of terror networks.
However, after three years, boundless bureaucratic initiatives and trillions of borrowed dollars spent, do we know Americans are truly better off than we were on 20 January 2009?
I believe history will judge President Obama’s tenure harshly.
Foreign entanglements in the turbulent mid-East are plainly coming to the boil.
America has a long history of involvement in many places there and it is clearly not fair to apportion blame, if blame comes due, only upon President Obama.
That said, one of President Obama’s signal supporters, Colin Powell astutely observed to President Bush: “you break it—you own it”.
By April 2009, Barack Obama started to do just that.
In Strasbourg, to great consternation, the President unilaterally disarmed one highly effective tool in the American rhetorical arsenal—the widely shared belief in “American Exceptionalism”, fairly seen throughout decades of history.
But it was scant weeks later when I believe the President gutted the moral high ground in America’s ambition for a lasting peace in the Mid-East.
In his valiant hope for securing peace, President Obama may actually have compounded risks of conflict in the now smoldering cradle of civilization that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River.
To see why, we should take ourselves back to early June of 2009, when President Obama visited Cairo.
The physical center of Cairo is “Liberation” Square, made famous and infamous last year. Steps from there stands a legendary oasis for sweet lovers called Groppi.
In the United States, dessert can be a short and guilty course, rushed through after families devour more essential, nourishing items. At Groppi, dessert generally involves multiple servings of sugar treats, sweet tea, and rich coffee–ingredients that foment rigorous debate and make hours fly by in what seem like seconds.
On 3 June 2009, anticipation must have run high at Groppi as habitués tried to imagine what the first American President of African and Arabic descent would have to say during his forthcoming historic address.
Staunch fans likely expected America’s new-millennium, pro-intellectual leader to serve a full meal of groundbreaking suggestions and navigate the tortured Middle-Eastern landscape with nuance and wise appreciation for core issues and complexities. One can also conjure the minority view that America’s actual record in the region was distress inducing and her realistic options circumscribed.
When President Obama rose to deliver his remarks concerning “A New Beginning” around 1:00 PM, video records show that the audience of highly trained academics, diplomats, and dignitaries seemed more than prepared to soak up each word.
During an hour, President Obama concentrated upon such important topics as the dangers posed by violent extremism; Israel, Palestine and the Arab world; threats posed by proliferation of nuclear weapons; democracy; religious freedom; women’s rights and economic development.
However, where our President stumbled badly amidst so many broad subjects was in articulating a construct that contradicted America’s continuing deeds while also ignoring the essential genius and exceptional founding premise of our nation.
As he spoke the following words, the people of Iraq and in Afghanistan no doubt struggled to reconcile his claim with their on-the-ground reality:
“…no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.”
This element of the newly proclaimed Obama Doctrine must have re-assured President Hosni Mubarak; a staunch ally of America whose popularity, at home, had been fading after more than 25 years in power.
Then he went from bad to much worse.
“This does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”
Though they certainly were not physically present, the Mullahs in Tehran likely also took careful note of President Obama’s Non-Interference Proclamation. Scant days later, a “Green Revolution” erupted on 13 June 2009 within Iran over allegations of fraud in the bitterly contested Presidential election “taken” by the ruling regime.
In America, we seem to take for granted that no choices are truly viable unless citizens of a nation are fully protected in their right to select whether and how they commune with God.
One fatal flaw in President Obama’s Cairo Declaration is that he failed to accept there is currently no globally accepted arbiter concerning whether national elections are actually “peaceful” and “fair”.
An even more impenetrable barrier to President Obama’s view of the way forward is that it did not address the implacable obstacles to exercise of free will inside a nation that elevates one religion above and to the exclusion of all others.
Thomas Jefferson expressed his understanding of this defining distinction eloquently in 1784:
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Many other nations, particularly in the Mid-East, hold steadfast to far less flexible, intolerant views on this critical topic.
In the United States, the founders ultimately crafted an essential compromise that made the Constitution the supreme law inside the land.
At Groppi, across Egypt and in many places around the world, individuals understand that nothing man-made approaches perfection.
However, exceptions can point the way towards eternal truths.
Inside our national boundaries, Americans remain free to trust in God, each in our own way and however we alone choose to do so. Here, out of many we are together one—an indivisible body politic of manifest strength. And when the time comes, we face the end and Judgment following our conscience.
Thinking back to June in Cairo, I understand why a President would choose to address his audience inside an air-conditioned room. Neither sweet notions nor hard realities bear up well under assault from rough sand and the harsh glare of the Egyptian sun.
Nevertheless, I do wonder how his remarks would have been altered had he been forced to make them outside at Giza, beside the Great Pyramid, below the monolith we call the “Sphinx”, fully recognizing he was just one of many powerful visitors to reach an ancient land.
The ravages of time have obscured what remains below eye-level of this massive monument. Perhaps the sculptors once had carved a wry smile beneath the wise eyes to remind those who would gaze upon this spectacle that “pride comes before the fall”.
A legitimate aspiration for all, is liberation ever possible inside a nation that submits to only one form of religious rule? Moreover, how safe can an open nation like America remain while escalating conflict, when our leaders forget we only hold sway inside our own borders, assuming we actually defend them?
Graduated from Horace Mann School, Yale College and Harvard Business School, Charles tries to learn each day.
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