EDITORIAL: The world Obama created

Leading from behind leads to global chaos

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The tragic events that took place in Libya and Egypt this week were the inevitable consequences of weak U.S. leadership. America and the world cannot afford four more such years.

In Benghazi, four Americans including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens were murdered in a coordinated attack on the U.S. consulate by Islamic militants. On the same day, al Qaeda released a video in which leader Ayman al-Zawahri eulogized Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan al Qaeda commander believed killed in June by a U.S. drone strike. This was no coincidence.

In Cairo, demonstrators — upset over an allegedly anti-Islamic film trailer being circulated on YouTube — spray-painted the outside of the U.S. embassy with anti-American slogans, then scaled the walls, hauled down the American flag and ripped it to pieces. Old Glory was replaced by a black jihadist banner as the crowd chanted, “Obama, Obama there are still a billion Osamas.”

American inadequacy was compounded in the communications crisis surrounding the incident. Our Cairo embassy put out a statement even before the flag was torn down denouncing the “misguided” film and voicing U.S. support for Islam. This semi-apology clearly had no effect, unless it was to embolden the crowd. After the flag was torn to shreds, there followed a bizarre Twitter debate between an embassy employee and an Egyptian activist in which the staffer seemed to be more concerned with denouncing the purported pretext for the mob’s riot than condemning the violence itself. “We consistently stand up for Muslims around the world and talk abt [sic] how Islam is a wonderful religion,” the tweeter explained.

These messages were later deleted and serve as a good illustration why Twitter and diplomacy don’t mix. If the Obama administration wanted to send a brief missive to the demonstrators, it should have opted for the one suggested by columnist Charles Krauthammer: “Go to Hell.”

Both of these crises could have been avoided. They were obviously timed for the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America. In the past, U.S. facilities at home and abroad were placed on high alert on Sept. 11 to be prepared for such situations. There is no evidence of any such warnings going out this year. More disturbingly, according to White House records, President Obama skipped every daily intelligence briefing from Sept. 6-11. The question now is: Did the United States have any prior warning about the impending attacks that might have been acted on had Mr. Obama been paying closer attention?

The brewing crisis in North Africa is a symptom of a foreign policy adrift. It was with respect to Libya that an Obama administration official admiringly coined the expression “leading from behind,” a lame attempt to portray Mr. Obama as a deft manager of international crises. However, the term quickly caught on as a more pointed critique of a president who was frequently behind, but never leading. In general, he has been disengaged. A government employee who attended the Pentagon’s Sept. 11 anniversary ceremony said Mr. Obama “looked bored,” and that while his speech said the right things, “the words never rose up into his eyes.”

Mr. Obama points with pride to his foreign-policy record, but there is little to respect. America’s global reputation has declined since January 2009. There is no region in the world where U.S. interests are advancing.

The United States no longer has a strong leadership position in Europe. The trans-Atlantic relationship has withered. America is playing no important part in trying to resolve the European debt crisis which threatens to plunge the world into a new recession, if it is not already there. Germany, which has assumed the lead role in addressing the problem, is now voicing concerns that the record amounts of debt being accumulated by the Obama administration will be the catalyst for a new economic collapse.

Mr. Obama has tried to remain flexible for Russia, an adversary state whose leader Vladimir Putin isn’t short on ambition. Moscow agreed to the 2010 New START nuclear-arms reduction treaty because it was a bad deal for America. Now the Obama administration is talking about further nuclear cuts, which will weaken our strategic deterrent at a time when Russia and China are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, and proliferator states like North Korea and Pakistan ponder how best to expand their nuclear programs. Washington has no evident influence on Chinese behavior and relies on Beijing to continue to assume responsibility for buying up our mounting debt. U.S. influence in Central and South America is in decline.

There is no evident progress being made in the world’s hotspots. The war in Afghanistan grinds on, producing higher casualties and greater volatility. The only thing Mr. Obama can say for certain about that unfortunate country is American troops are departing, and soon. Pakistan remains a haven for terrorists, while Iraq is seeing a spike in sectarian violence. There is no steady hand anywhere across the arc of instability.

Tehran continues its march to nuclear-weapons capability, and the Obama administration seems more concerned with setting red lines for Israel than for Iran. Relations between Mr. Obama and the Israeli prime minister are so frosty that the president has refused to meet with Benjamin Netanyahu when both will be at the United Nations this month. Mr. Obama petulantly cutting off communications will virtually guarantee a major crisis in the region; it’s only a matter of time.

The fallout from the much-heralded Arab Spring continues. In Syria, a full-scale civil war is under way which the United States has chosen not to decisively influence. In Egypt, the world is beginning to witness the results of what the State Department described as “legitimate Islamism.” Present in the mob outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Tuesday was the family of blind Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is serving a life sentence for masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has promised to seek Rahman’s release. Anti-American sentiment is growing, non-Muslim religious minorities are facing increased persecution, and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel that has maintained regional stability for three decades is under assault.

The analogy to the failed Carter presidency is striking. Both Democrats came to power offering a moral critique of U.S. foreign and national-security policy. Both exploited war weariness and a desire for U.S. retrenchment. Both were greeted with enthusiasm from a global community skeptical of American activism. And both were taken advantage of by adversary states who understood that these liberals were weak leaders. Jimmy Carter also saw a diplomat killed on his watch: Adolph “Spike” Dubs, the U.S. representative to Afghanistan who was murdered in Kabul in 1979.

The one positive decision Mr. Obama can point to — taking out Osama bin Laden — is his weakest argument for a second term. After all, bin Laden is dead, and that operation cannot be repeated.

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