By most objective standards, President Obama’s Libya speech can be considered a success. After weeks of comparative silence, the president’s address - delivered on March 28 before the National Defense University - was as spirited a defense of America’s decision to intervene forcefully in Libya as any we have seen to date. So much so, in fact, that it raised eyebrows in many quarters. “Serious question,” one foreign policy observer asked wryly on Twitter in the wake of the president’s remarks. “Who did the neocons have to trade to get Barack Obama on their team?”
Indeed, with his newfound emphasis on humanitarian intervention, pro-democracy activism and the use of force, Mr. Obama these days sounds a great deal like his predecessor. Upon closer inspection, however, the similarities break down. The George W. Bush administration, in its 2003 national security strategy, boldly proclaimed a “forward strategy that favors freedom” - an idea that subsequently served as the cornerstone of its ambitious effort to remake the Middle East. The approach of the current White House, by contrast, can be described more accurately as supporting freedom for some, but not for all.
Take Mr. Obama’s contention, articulated in his Libya speech, that “when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.” A nice sentiment, to be sure, but a deeply problematic one, especially given that the Libyan scenario isn’t unique - quite the contrary, in fact. The brutality of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime is commonplace in a region riddled with authoritarian governments and repressive juntas. Yet Washington, under Mr. Obama, has shied away from taking up the issues of these iniquities in other corners of the Middle East. Nor has it weighed in decisively in favor of the anti-regime stirrings in many of those same places.
Iran is a case in point. Recent weeks have seen a resurgence of the widespread grass-roots protests that erupted within the Islamic republic following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent re-election in June 2009. Unlike in the past, Mr. Obama has responded positively to these developments and taken a stand in support of Iran’s opposition forces. In his latest message, commemorating the Persian New Year, the president told the Iranian people in no uncertain terms that he supported their “freedom of peaceful assembly and association; the ability to speak your mind and choose your leaders.”
But that appears to be where the administration’s endorsement ends. At least so far, there is little indication that Mr. Obama’s support is anything other than notional - or that his government is prepared to commit any real political, economic or military resources in support of the cause of freedom within Iran.
On Syria, Team Obama has done even less. After decades of Ba’athist-imposed stagnation, major pro-democracy protests are challenging the repressive regime of Bashar Assad in Damascus. A brutal crackdown has followed, with widespread reports of mounting casualties as government forces bear down on protesters in Daraa, Jassem, Latakia and other cities. White House officials, however, have taken a deferential stance toward Damascus, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton even going so far as to insinuate that at least some in the U.S. government believe Mr. Assad to be a “reformer.”
That, of course, must be news to Mr. Assad. After dissolving his Cabinet as a sop to his political opponents, the Syrian strongman used his most recent public address, on Wednesday, not to proffer additional concessions but to rail against the international conspiracies and seditionist elements working to undermine his rule. It is a safe bet that greater violence will follow. That the Obama administration will do something about it, however, is not.
So if the president’s defense of intervention in Libya sounds inauthentic, perhaps it is because his administration plies its outrage about human rights violations and Middle East repression so selectively. If it didn’t, the pro-democracy activists in Syria and Iran, and not just Libya’s rebels, might be able to take heart as well.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.