|Obama and his senior staff gladly accept praise for the capture of bin Laden, but are reluctant to act in full support of the ongoing Arab Spring [REUTERS]
Say what you will about the long-term wisdom or even legality of the spectacular raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It's undeniable that the president took a huge gamble in authorising such a risky operation in which so many things could have gone wrong. If they had, Mr Obama's presidency would likely have been left in tatters.
As it turned out, the president demonstrated a steely nerve and strong operational sensibility in the planning and execution of the raid, without which it would likely not have succeeded. As secretary of defence Robert Gates described it on 60 Minutes, the raid marked "one of the most courageous" decisions he's seen a president make.
Which begs the question: Why can't Obama display these qualities in other, non-lethal facets of his policies in the Arab world? How can he risk so much to kill one man, but lack the courage to take the far smaller risks that would accompany a regrounding - and not merely rebranding - of American Middle East policy?
A photo worth a thousand words
One answer might come from the now iconic photo of the president, hunched in a corner of the White House situation room, surrounded by about a dozen of his most senior civilian and military aides during the bin Laden operation. Let us imagine that, instead of bringing this group together to watch the attack on bin Laden's compound, the president had called them down to the situation room to discuss how to demand Israel begin evacuating most settlements and allow the creation of a viable Palestinian state within one year (a perfectly achievable goal if he chose to pursue it)? Or, to announce his intention to suspend aid, arms sales and diplomatic support for all states in the region who are not moving quickly towards democratic reforms?
|The killing of Osama bin Laden has boosted Barack Obama's domestic approval ratings [Reuters]
Or, thinking domestically. If Mr Obama called in his most senior aides to work out a plan to outfit every home in the southern half of the United States with solar power. It would cost roughly $500bn, a far more cost-efficient way to protect the country than an empire of bases that costs one trillion dollars per year (as it happens, the president instead announced on Saturday that he would speed up the awarding of leases for oil drilling in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico).
One could easily imagine the president in the same room, in the same corner, but now alone, his aides having resigned rather than participate in such risky and unrealistic policies.
Or would they?
One of the most important qualities a president must demonstrate is leadership. Obama's companions in the situation room certainly understood the risks of failure during the bin Laden operation, not just to the country but to their own careers and legacies. And yet, brought together under his firm leadership, they pulled off what the president described as "one of the greatest intelligence and military operations in our nation's history".
Who is to say if the president forcefully articulated a rationale for a radical reboot of his Mideast policy his aides wouldn't be willing to stay the course with him, even if it meant taking on entrenched interests such as the Israeli, defence and oil industry lobbies?
Sadly, we will likely never know the answer to this question, because it seems that the president will not bring himself to do it.
Fear or something else?
From the start, Mr Obama attempted to distinguish himself from president Bush by dialling back the pro-democracy rhetoric his predecessor had made a centrepiece of in his foreign policy. The president's June 2009 speech in Cairo was his first attempt to reboot America's relationship with the Muslim world based on "mutual respect" and a desire not to "impose" any particular political system on other cultures.
This focus on not imposing or interfering seems to be a cardinal point of the president's foreign policy discourse. It was used as a justification for not pushing too hard for Ben Ali or Mubarak to leave until it was clear that the people were going to topple them anyway.
But what does this discourse of staying out of the way really mean?
According to secretary of state Clinton, it means that the US cannot simply intervene wherever governments mistreat people. She argued in a recent New Yorker profile of Obama and his Mideast policies: "People are being killed in Cote d'Ivoire, Congo, they're being oppressed and abused all over the world by dictators and really unsavory characters. So we could be intervening all over the place. But that is not a - what is the standard?"
This view is related to that of another central player in the shaping of Obama's foreign policy: National Security Council member Samantha Power. Power's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Problem from Hell, argued that in the wake of the genocides in Rwanda or the Balkans, the United States had the obligation to intervene forcefully in cases of mass killing.
That logic helped convince the president to do just that when Gaddafi began killing Libyan citizens in large numbers. Yet at the same time, by that measurement, the administration is refusing to adopt forceful policies against other, increasingly violent crackdowns, such as in Bahrain and now Syria.
The seeming common sense of this argument - the US can't be the world's policeman but has a duty to intervene in exceptional cases - belies its convenience, and more so its speciousness. In reality, the choice of either military intervention or staying out of the fray is politically and empirically false.
The United States is already deeply involved with all the countries now in the midst of uprisings. It has been intervening in their affairs for decades, almost uniformly on the side of the governments rather than the people.
Refusing to support the region's pro-democracy movements is neither particularly respectful, nor does it represent a lack of interference. It is a form of action - powerfully so - in favour of the status quo. And most everyone in the region understands it as such.
Clinton's argument, that either the United States must invade Syria, Yemen or Bahrain, or - aside from a few rhetorical slaps on the wrist - do nothing, is nonsense. There are innumerable options available to the president, from suspending military aid or basing agreements to calling for the suspension of offending states' UN memberships and putting trade embargoes in place. What it would take, however, is a well articulated policy that is applied to all the governments of the region equally, and a willingness to defend it against the various domestic constituencies for the strategic status quo.
The costs of not doing this are already apparent.
In Egypt, Obama's late endorsement of the pro-democracy forces has left the US with little leverage as the emerging political system realigns Egyptian foreign and security policy in new directions. In Syria, the administration's refusal to come down hard against Assad will leave it with few allies in a post-Assad environment if the pro-democracy movement's continued defiance ultimately triumphs over his murderous repression.
Indeed, it also has produced a situation where, albeit for different reasons, the Iranian and US governments are each acting to prop up the Baathist regime. Is this really the side the United States wants to be on?
In Israel/Palestine, the peace process has become so hopeless that the president's special envoy, George Mitchell, resigned from his position.
In Afghanistan, so desperate is the situation that Obama has argued that the killing of bin Laden next door indicates progress there.
"Our strategy is working and there is no greater evidence of that than justice finally being delivered to Osama bin Laden... I am confident we're going to succeed in this mission." If the president really believes that the killing of bin Laden deep in the heart of Pakistan demonstrates the success of his Afghan policy, then the logic under-girding US foreign policy has sunk to a new level of purgatory.
It seems unlikely, however, that the president, a self-described "student of history", believes his own words and doesn't understand the implications of his policies. As his national security adviser, Thomas E
Donilon, has pointed out, Obama "has really been the central intellectual force... designing the approaches" the US has adopted towards the various uprisings. So he is not merely following the advice of senior aides; he is actively shaping the policies himself.
Already last August he sent a five-page memo called "Political Reform in the Middle East and North Africa" to his most senior aides, a document which in some measure predicted the uprisings to come. Increased citizen protest in response to stalled progress towards political reform and openness would, he warned, "threaten the political and economic stability of some of our allies". This would undermine American credibility if the US was seen as "backing repressive regimes and ignoring the rights and aspirations of citizens".
From pragmatism to realism
Here is the point where Mr Obama's oft-described "pragmatism" has done him so much harm. Unwilling to take on the entrenched interests behind the status quo, Obama was forced to focus on calling for "reform" rather than deeper, structural change. This is the rationale, even though people across the region would see his administration's language as supporting governments who have spent decades using "reforms" to entrench the governments in power.
"The people want the fall of the system," millions have chanted. Against that ubiquitous cry, from Tunis to Sanaa, Obama's supposed "realism" and the administration's declarations that "each country must be treated differently" ring hollow.
On Thursday, the president will deliver a new address to the Muslim World, hoping that with the killing of bin Laden, he can again reboot America's relationship to the region. It will be hard to better the rhetoric of his
2009 Cairo speech, but the quality of the discourse isn't really the point any more.
With the cries of revolution sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East, talk has become cheap. It's time for president Obama to deliver. If he could risk his presidency to kill Osama bin Laden, he has no excuse to remain on the sidelines as the region's equally nefarious leaders, friend or foe, continue killing their people with impunity.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He has authored several books including Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine (University of California Press, 2005) and An Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.