“The statesman can only wait and listen until he hears the footsteps of God resounding through events; then he must jump up and grasp the hem of His coat, that is all.” Thus Otto von Bismarck, the great Prussian statesman who united Germany and thereby reshaped Europe’s balance of power nearly a century and a half ago.
Last week, for the second time in his presidency, Barack Obama heard those footsteps, jumped up to grasp a historic opportunity … and missed it completely.
In Bismarck’s case it was not so much God’s coattails he caught as the revolutionary wave of mid-19th-century German nationalism. And he did more than catch it; he managed to surf it in a direction of his own choosing. The wave Obama just missed—again—is the revolutionary wave of Middle Eastern democracy. It has surged through the region twice since he was elected: once in Iran in the summer of 2009, the second time right across North Africa, from Tunisia all the way down the Red Sea to Yemen. But the swell has been biggest in Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous country.
In each case, the president faced stark alternatives. He could try to catch the wave, Bismarck style, by lending his support to the youthful revolutionaries and trying to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests. Or he could do nothing and let the forces of reaction prevail. In the case of Iran, he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations. This time around, in Egypt, it was worse. He did both—some days exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, other days drawing back and recommending an “orderly transition.”
The result has been a foreign-policy debacle.
Basically, the problem with Obama's foreign policy is the same as with his domestic programs. He just doesn't have a clear understanding of the goals or the mechanisms of government. Nothing in his background prepared him for governance -- certainly not the elite education he received -- and when confusion inevitably results he, as he did in the Senate, simply votes "present". His instinct is to straddle, to shift responsibility away from himself, and to studiously avoid the hard work of acquiring a significant understanding of the issues with which history presents him. Even when he has a clear goal, as in the case of establishing a national health system, he turns the whole matter over to others [in that case Congressional Democrats] who pursue their own ends, not his. This is a man who cannot, or will not, take charge. Prof. Ferguson has his number.
Here is Ferguson explaining his position to a largely hostile audience on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show.