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Where is Obama as Middle East boils?

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
  • William Bennett says Carter weakness on foreign policy made presidency seem "too big"
  • He says Reagan restored confidence, now it's waning with Obama's response
  • He says Obama was slow, muddled in offering support of reformers in Egypt
  • Bennett: Obama must clearly stand with reformers; his foreign policy lacks direction

Editor's note: CNN contributor William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- After witnessing a vacuum of leadership and an apparent fecklessness in dealing with crises abroad during Jimmy Carter's administration, some concluded the presidency was too big for one man.

It took President Reagan's leadership and rhetoric to rid the popular mind of that notion. Today, a stagnating economy and tumult from the Middle East to Africa is making us again question our idea of the job of president.

There is, of course, one person who can restore our faith in the presidency: the president. But as one looks at the major events unfolding abroad right now, it is hard to conclude that he will do that. Or that he can.

In Egypt last month, the U.S. administration sent confusing messages both to the government and the protesters in the streets. One day, we were standing with Hosni Mubarak, the next with the protesters in the street. And then, the next, we were saying positive things about the Muslim Brotherhood. And then we were correcting that.

As commentator Niall Ferguson concluded from our actions and statements there, "Tragically, no one knows where Barack Obama's map of the Middle East is."

Our administration finally found a clear voice on Egypt, and the message from the president was to stand with those who demanded Mubarak's ouster, that they were a "moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice." He compared them to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

Nobody knows whether the arc of history will bend toward justice there, and right now we should have great concern, especially as the Muslim Brotherhood is flexing its muscles and windpipes.

In Egypt, as with other places boiling with protest and possible internal regime replacement, the outcomes are just not certain: Things very well may get better, that arc may bend, but it is anything but guaranteed.

As historian Benny Morris put it recently, "When the dust settles, which it will, in a month or two or three's time, one will see that Western -- and Israeli -- interests in the Middle East will have been substantially undermined and anti-Western -- and anti-Israeli -- interests substantially bolstered.

"Similarly, one will see that the regimes which are, by nature and tradition very brutal, such as Iran's, Syria's and possibly Libya's, will weather the storm, whereas those which are softer, more inclined to measures of liberalization, partly because of attentiveness to messages from Washington, will either have fallen or will have given ground, and a large measure of power, to anti-Western, often Islamist, elements within each country."

But Morris and those who think Libya will continue on with Moammar Gadhafi as its leader will remain correct only if the United States continues in its muddled message. It has taken the president several days to say something about the brutality in Libya, and now, having spoken, his words are left wanting.

He was more forceful (when he was forceful) in his support for the protesters in Egypt, who rose up against an ally of ours, than he has been on behalf of the protesters in Libya, who face far more brutality from a dictator who has never been a friend of ours and has, for years, been an international outlaw and supporter of terrorism.

Don't just take my word for it; listen to the words of a representative protester speaking to Anderson Cooper after President Obama finally did break his silence on Libya:

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The Libyan public are angry from the statement was given by President Obama today. Everybody was disappointed.

COOPER: You feel he didn't go for enough?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No. ... It's nonsense. I thought that he's going to give even threats or warning for this to stop. I expected more, to be honest. I expected to read between the lines from his speech. I did not see that. I was very disappointed, not me alone. Everybody was disappointed. We want America to support us.

If this sounds at all familiar, it is because it recalls our administration's pathetic response to the brutality (and hopes on the street) in Iran in 2009, where democratic aspirants there literally asked, "Where's Obama?"

And while we simply cannot know what will come of Egypt, we do know whatever could come next in Libya -- or, for that matter, Iran -- could not be worse. Yet we do not clearly stand with the reformers.

Our foreign policy is lost at sea because it is without direction. Or, perhaps even worse: because there is no map.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Bennett.