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Egypt, Tunisia, and Other Reasons Why the President Should Have Said More about Foreign Policy Last Night


What was surprising about President Obama’s second State of the Union address was what he did not mention. During a time of two wars and ongoing threats to the U.S. homeland, the president once again devoted little time in his speech to foreign policy.

Unfortunately for him, recent developments indicate that foreign policy will be a key part of his legacy, whether he likes it or not. The spontaneous overthrow of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali two weeks ago has led to a cascade of protests across the Middle East. The most recent and perhaps most surprising have played out on the streets of Cairo, as tens of thousands of Egyptians call for an end to Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year grasp on power.

To his credit, the president has overcome his initial reticence to speak about democracy and human rights on a regular basis. But his administration still tends to be behind the curve, responding to events rather than leading. Secretary Clinton described Mubarak’s government as “stable” yesterday, but as the protests grew, both the White House and State Department issued calls last night for the Egyptian government to show “restraint.”

Similarly, the president’s surprising willingness to make human rights a prominent issue in his interactions with Chinese President Hu Jintao last week appeared to be driven by China’s churlish reaction to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo more than a policy decision to make the U.S.–China relationship dependent upon how China treats its citizens.

Beyond Tunisia, Egypt, and China, there are many other reasons for the president to make foreign policy a priority, if he is willing to put his statement last night that America “supports the democratic aspirations of all people” into action.

Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov recently emerged from a 15-day prison sentence for participating in a government-approved protest on New Year’s Eve in Moscow. He noted that the Russian regime “will stop at nothing to preserve their power and money” and called for Western sanctions on Prime Minister Putin and other officials. And, although the Green movement in Iran seems to have been silenced for now, reports of potential delays in Iran’s nuclear program may now give the United States and its allies more time to help the Iranian people to peacefully change their regime.

For far too much of his first two years in office, President Obama has been on the side of the thugs and jailers — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hu Jintao, Vladimir Putin, and Hosni Mubarak to name just a few. It is time for him to place the moral weight of his office fully behind those fighting for their freedom.

Pres. George W. Bush came to realize the importance of such a strategy after the events of September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, the current administration has seemed more interested in not being the Bush administration than in doing what is right.

Just like any other, the Bush administration stumbled along the way, but there was never any question about how committed the man at the top was to his agenda. That is what has been lacking from this president, so his comments last night and in other fora recently are encouraging.

Going forward, he would do well to read President Bush’s second inaugural address and reaffirm its core message: “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in the world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. . . . So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

This is a message for the ages, a message that should strike fear in the heart of every dictator and repressive ruler. It is the message that Hu Jintao, Mubarak, Khamenei, and others need to hear. It is also the message that young Egyptians, imprisoned dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo, and all others risking everything to obtain their fundamental rights need to hear this president repeat on a regular and sustained basis.

Last night was a start, but much more needs to be done.

Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.