April 30, 2011

THE DEFINING characteristic of the Obama administration’s response to revolution in the Arab world has been its slowness. When protests first erupted in Egypt in January, the administration’s first reaction was to publicly pronounce Hosni Mubarak’s government “stable”; President Obama did not support the demonstrators’ demand for the dictator’s resignation until days before his departure. When Moammar Gaddafi launched an attempt to crush Libya’s uprising by force in February, Mr. Obama was the last major Western leader to speak out in opposition. Three more weeks passed before the White House agreed to military intervention to protect civilians.

Syria has been another case of extraordinary U.S. passivity. The first protests in the southern city of Daraa were five weeks ago, and on March 23 the first of many massacres of demonstrators by security forces was reported. Yet on March 27 Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was still referring to President Bashar al-Assad as “a reformer.” Not until Friday — when at least 42 more civilians were reportedly gunned down — did the administration finally take its first, tangible steps to pressure the regime, by bringing Syria before the U.N. Human Rights Council and imposing sanctions on several officials. It still has not backed the protesters’ demands that Mr. Assad give up power.

This pattern of torpidity has sometimes appeared to be the product of Mr. Obama’s caution about adopting major changes in foreign policy; or disputes among his advisers over the proper course; or conflicting U.S. interests. Up to a point, the confusion is understandable. It is not easy to abandon long-standing alliances with Arab regimes or bet on the unknown in a country such as Syria, even when the reward may be a democratic transformation or a body blow to U.S. enemies.

Recently, however, some of Mr. Obama’s aides have sought to portray slowness as a considered policy. Last week The Post’s Scott Wilson quoted one official saying, with respect to Syria, that “we very much see our role in these things as one that is behind what voices in the region are saying.” The New Yorker magazine quoted an aide as describing the president’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.”

Could it be that American passivity is a virtue, worthy of elevation into doctrine? The record in the Middle East so far suggests that it is not. The administration’s response to Egypt was not well received by Egyptians — a plurality of 39 percent said in a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center that the impact of the policy was “negative.” Sixty-four percent said they had little or no confidence in Mr. Obama — five percentage points more than a year ago. In Libya, opposition leaders have joined U.S. NATO allies in expressing disappointment at Mr. Obama’s refusal to commit more U.S. aircraft to the fight — a posture that almost certainly has prolonged the war and Libyans’ suffering.

By insisting on following “voices in the region” on Syria, Mr. Obama effectively deferred to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey about whether to take a stand against a regime that has deployed troops and tanks against unarmed citizens. That is an unprecedented yielding of U.S. global leadership on matters of human rights and democracy. It is more likely to increase than lessen anti-Americanism in the Arab world. In both practical and moral terms, “leading from behind” is a mistake.