Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama, failing on moral leadership?

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 1:49 PM EDT, Sat May 4, 2013
President Barack Obama signed an executive order on January 22, 2009, to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. Five years later, the prison for terrorism suspects remains open, with 155 detainees (as of December 2013). Click through for a look inside the <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/11/opinion/warren-guantanamo-bay/index.html'>controversial facility</a>. Here, President George W. Bush's official picture is replaced by Obama's in the lobby of the headquarters of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo on January 20, 2009, the day the latter was sworn in as president. President Barack Obama signed an executive order on January 22, 2009, to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. Five years later, the prison for terrorism suspects remains open, with 155 detainees (as of December 2013). Click through for a look inside the controversial facility. Here, President George W. Bush's official picture is replaced by Obama's in the lobby of the headquarters of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo on January 20, 2009, the day the latter was sworn in as president.
HIDE CAPTION
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Photos: Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Photos: Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: The world stands shivering in a cold moral vacuum
  • Ghitis: For example, the president said he couldn't solve some pressing problems
  • She says setting high standards only to leave them unachieved demoralizes people
  • Ghitis: Obama needs to address Gitmo, Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, sequester

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns.

(CNN) -- If any doubt remains that the world stands shivering in a cold moral vacuum -- devoid of meaningful leadership -- they are quickly fading.

The starkest example came in Washington on Tuesday, when President Barack Obama, inarguably the world's most powerful man, stood before the press and recited a series of positions, some of them built on solid moral arguments, only to conclude that there is not much he can do to turn them into reality.

Obama explained at length why the world cannot tolerate the use of chemical weapons in Syria, why the U.S. should not keep open the prison at Guantanamo Bay, why Washington is acting foolishly with the infamous "sequester" -- the blunt and unjust budget cutter. But then he went on to explain just how difficult it is to do anything to solve these problems.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

The president is smart and eloquent. But leadership, especially for someone who has achieved that level of power, requires three elements: It must communicate a clear vision and a commitment to its realization; it must mobilize and inspire others into action; and it must produce results.

Proclaiming high standards only to leave them unachieved demoralizes those you might have hoped to inspire. Rather than bending the arc of history toward justice, it unleashes a chain reaction of disenchantment.

Consider the Guantanamo prison. You might have thought Obama was a candidate again when he declared, just as he did years ago on the campaign trail that America must shut down the prison. Holding prisoners without charges and trial, he said persuasively, is "contrary to who we are." It's not just an ethical question, it is a practical matter. "It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed."

Outrage over Gitmo
Lawyer: Political will could close Gitmo
How red must red line be in Syria?
Obama clarifies 'game changer' comments

He might have added that Guantanamo is also the world's most expensive prison, costing about $800,000 per prisoner per year, or some $800 million each year.

Everyone knows that Congress has made it difficult to close the prison. But legal experts say the Obama administration could do much more and, in fact, "has done little to make good on [its] promise" to shut down the prison. The executive branch, as legal expert David Cole notes, has a number of options, including prosecuting detainees or declaring the transfer of some detainees to other countries is "in the national security interest" of the U.S.

Obama came to office with a mandate to restore America's standing in the world. He went a long way in achieving that simply by not being George W. Bush, but it's difficult to point to real successes in fulfilling his pledge to exert moral leadership.

America and the rest of the world seem frozen in place with major institutions and personalities incapable of responding to challenges.

One can argue that it is not America's job to fix the world's problems, to stop the killings in distant lands even if, as we now know, those killings involve horrific weapons banned by international agreements that set a limit to our inhumanity even in times of war.

I am referring to Syria, which allegedly used chemical weapons in a two-year-old civil war. Taking action to stop the use of chemical weapons is in the interest of everyone on earth, with the possible exception of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Chemical weapons can kill in more brutal ways than other instruments of death. And if they are successfully used, dictators and terrorists will make more of them. They make us all less safe.

Since this problem is not just America's, perhaps we should leave it up to others to act. But who?

Who in the world today has the moral standing and the practical ability to take meaningful action? It would be nice if the conscience of humanity had a way to express itself and make a difference. The obvious place would be the United Nations and its Security Council. But the UNSC is hopelessly mired in power struggles. On this as in so many other issues, the power politics involving Russia, China and the U.S. stop the world from speaking out with one voice.

Obama had repeatedly drawn a "red line" on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, warning President Bashar al-Assad that using or moving chemical stockpiles was the one thing that would "change my calculus" on that war.

The "red line" has become an object of tragicomic ridicule, especially after Tuesday's press conference. Cartoonists in the Middle East and elsewhere are joking about Obama and his red line, depicting the Syrian dictator painting a red line right over the American president's face.

During his press conference, the president seemed to backtrack. What initially seemed like a clear, if controversial, position suddenly became so complicated and hazy that even the Washington Post editorial board called it a "muddle."

Eventually, the United States will have to take a stand and help Syria's rebels, without sending American troops into its civil war. But so far, Obama's equivocations are exposing America's self-proclaimed place as "leader of the free world" to ridicule.

Sure, Obama faces a stubborn Congress that makes his life difficult. And Americans' exhaustion with wars overseas undoubtedly makes him more reluctant to act, but the president's persuasive powers can be deployed to good effect, especially since meaningful results can be achieved without the proverbial American boots on the ground.

Of course, the problems he has to deal with are difficult and often offer choices between bad and worse. But the time is right for a new display of conviction, of effectiveness, of leadership.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT