Obama's moment in the Middle East - and at home

After trying to control the protests in Libya through threats of violence, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi has lost control of the armed forces. (Feb. 23)
Wednesday, February 23, 2011

It is of course possible, and probably likely, that the Arab Spring of 2011 will fail, as other springs in the Middle East and elsewhere have never come to fruition.

There would still be a case, for reasons of honor and duty, for the United States to try to help, to do the right thing, to stand with the opponents of tyranny, even if one thought them likely, even nearly certain, to fail.

But we don't know they'll fail. And it would be terrible for the United States to have stood by, encumbered by uncertainty, weakened by sophistication, paralyzed by self-doubt, as we did little more than watch the uprisings across the Middle East and fret as a possibly historic moment slips away. Not only because that moment could vindicate American principles and mean a gain for American interests but because we claim those American principles to be universal principles - not realizable always or everywhere but to be approached when and where possible.

There is at the very least an effort underway to approach them in the Middle East. We can't control the outcome. We may not even be able to affect it decisively. But the forces of civilization are not without resources to bring to bear.

What exactly to do in each case is complicated; it depends on difficult judgments of facts on the ground. It might be that if more analysts and commentators spent more time trying to figure out what could be done, and less time thinking up clever analogies that allegedly show how things are destined to turn out, or finding ever more reasons any effort on our part is doomed to fail, we might learn that we have more ways to affect events than we now think.

But at such moments we can't depend on analysts and commentators. This is a time when one looks, necessarily, to the president. So far, one looks in vain. What has been strikingly lacking in the Obama administration's response is a sense of the possibility of the moment, a commitment to doing our best to bring that possibility to fruition, a realization that this may be an important inflection point in world history that should shake us out of business as usual.

This means more than speeches - though speaking out would be a start. It means aggressive efforts, covert and overt, direct and indirect, to help the liberals - in the old sense of the word - in the Middle East. It means considering the use of force when force is used to kill innocent civilians. It means a full-scale engagement of the U.S. government, an across-the-board effort with allies and international organizations, a real focus on the challenge these times present.

This can be President Obama's moment. It's not quite the one he expected or perhaps the one he wanted. He's not the president that some of us would have preferred to have to deal with this situation. But there he is, and his moment is our moment.

History is full of ironies. But a sense of irony needn't imply an embrace of passivity. If Obama rises to this moment, if he can help the Arab Spring come even partly to fruition, we critics of his administration here at home will be glad to salute him - as will, just as surely and more importantly, hundreds of millions of lovers of freedom around the world.

William Kristol is editor of the Weekly Standard.

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