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"This will not stand!" declared George H.W. Bush.
He was speaking of Saddam Hussein's invasion, occupation and annexation of the emirate of Kuwait as his "19th province."
Seven months later, the Iraqi army was fleeing up the "Highway of Death" back into a country devastated by five weeks of U.S. bombing.
When Bush spoke, the world sat up and listened.
Consider the change.
"It's time for Gadhafi to go," said President Barack Obama two weeks ago. "So, let me just be very unambiguous about this. Col. Gadhafi needs to step down from power and leave." And did he go?
Receiving Obama's ultimatum, Gadhafi rallied his troops and took the offensive. His army is now 100 miles from Benghazi.
Obama urged the king of Bahrain not to crush the peaceful protest in Pearl Square and to accommodate the legitimate demands of its Shiite majority.
The Saudis, seeing a threat to their oil-rich and Shiite-populated eastern province should the Bahraini monarchy fall, sent 2,000 troops across the King Fahd Causeway. Bahrain then brutally swept the "outlaws" from the streets of its capital, Manama.
Among the few things that may be said with certainty about the Arab revolution of 2011 is that it has revealed the rising irrelevance of President Obama in that part of the world.
With impunity, Benjamin Netanyahu defied his demand that Israel cease to build on the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority, despite Obama's pleas, then went ahead with a U.N. resolution condemning Israel.
Caught flat-footed by the uprising in Tunisia, the White House could only offer belated congratulations to the demonstrators who had deposed and driven out our longtime ally, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
After Tunisia, Vice President Joe Biden insisted the embattled Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator in Egypt. Obama sided with Mubarak and then said he ought to go. Then, when the Saudis and Israelis protested that we were abandoning a friend of 30 years, Obama concluded Mubarak should stay.
When the army suddenly sent Mubarak packing, the White House hailed the revolution as the harbinger of an Arab spring.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton burbled that her 15-minute stroll through Tahrir Square was "a great reminder of the power of the human spirit and universal desire for freedom and human rights and democracy."
Some of the young demonstrators, recalling America's 30-year friendship with Mubarak and ambivalence over his ouster, refused to talk with her.
In denouncing Syria and Iran for crushing peaceful protests, the Obamaites acted consistent with the democratic values they preach. In their muffled response to the brutal treatment of demonstrators in Bahrain and Yemen, they put national interests above national ideals.
Indeed, it is this clash between our professed ideals and our perceived interests that has produced the reigning confusion in Washington and the near paralysis of American policy in the Middle East.
"Nations have no permanent friends or allies; they only have permanent interests," said Lord Palmerston. America lacks that kind of certitude. She is conflicted. She cannot make up her mind. Do our interests come first or our ideals? How can they be in conflict?
From World War I to the Carter era, U.S. national interests drove U.S. foreign policy. In Wilson's war "to make the world safe for democracy," we partnered with five empires. In World War II, we allied with Stalin. In the Cold War, we accepted the friendship of autocrats and dictators and caudillos and generalissimos who shared our fear and loathing of communism.
When John Foster Dulles was the face of U.S. foreign policy in the 1950s, the neutralism of nations such as Nehru's India and Sukarno's Indonesia was seen as immoral.
But with the end of the Cold War, moral clarity vanished.
We are now divided over whether kings, dictators and autocrats who share our interests but regard democracy as lunacy or a luxury they cannot afford can be America's allies and friends.
There is a second cause of conflict roiling the American mind.
Even as Moscow was abandoning communist ideology and China was giving up her dream of world revolution, the United States was converting to an ideology of global democracy. At some point in the past 20 years, it became the historic mission of America to make the whole world democratic.
And should we fail in this mission, George W. Bush reminded us, the end of American freedom would be ensured.
So, having defeated—or rather outlasted—our enemies with a pragmatic policy of accepting the friendship of any and all who would stand with us in that great Cold War struggle, we set out to remake the world in our own image, even as Moscow and Beijing had sought to do.
As they failed, so will we.
As for Obama, with our foremost Asian ally going through the agony of its worst natural disaster and with revolution raging through the Arab world, he has given us his picks for the Final Four in the "March Madness" of college basketball—and set off with Michelle to party in Rio.
How relevant is he? And how relevant are we?
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