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Spectator of the Free World: Obama and Iran

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Of all the sins for which a leader can be guilty, few are as egregious as the simple refusal to lead. Watching President Obama's at first deafening silence and then weak and hyper-cautious words on Iran has been disappointing and painful.

Our President must decide if he will serve as leader or spectator of the free world. This time no one is asking an American President to send in troops. No one is suggesting the deployment of laser-guided bombs. All it takes is a forthright statement from the leader of the free world: "The people of the United States support the people of Iran in their legitimate quest for democracy and freedom and will hold accountable any and all parties responsible for the bloodshed of non-violent demonstrators."

Pretty easy, right? Our President doesn't think so. As he put it, "It is not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling." Wait a minute. Was our President seriously comparing the 1953 CIA-inspired coup of the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq to an organic uprising of the Iranian people against a sham election and a supreme 'religious' leader who threatened to kill them if they protest? And if the President is right and has no right to meddle, then why is he pressuring Iran not to develop nuclear weapons?

Of course we meddle. It's our job to meddle. That's what leadership of the world entails unless President Obama seriously believes that place America occupies on the global stage is akin to Denmark or Madagascar. Meddling is only wrong when it serves a country's selfish, imperial purposes. But when its purpose is to save life and uphold liberty it is not only permitted but obligatory. Plenty of countries rightly 'meddled' in the affairs of the United States when they saw black children being blown down by powerful water hoses and attacked by dogs at civil rights marches. Martin Luther King invited them to meddle, which is why he repeatedly said, "The world is watching," a phrase which President Obama is now using against Iran.

The United State ought to be meddling in Sudan to stop the Janjaweed militias from slaughtering innocent Africans. We ought to be meddling in Myanmar to free the courageous Aung Yun Suu Kwi. President Clinton has apologized numerous times that he did not meddle in Rwanda when 800,000 innocent people were hacked to death and we call the generation that meddled in Europe during the Second World War, 'the greatest generation.' For that matter, I am grateful to the France of the late eighteenth century for agreeing to meddle in Britain's internal affairs when they tried to brutally crush an uprising of colonists overseas. Without their meddling the United States might have been stillborn.

President Obama's advisers justify the President's silence saying that if the US President were to speak out it would be used by the Mullahs as evidence that the uprising in Iran was Western-inspired. Come on. They're going to scapegoat the Great Satan anyway. But how does that absolve us from doing the right thing?

Indeed, it was Dr. King who passionately rejected this argument of 'outside agitator' when it was used against him by eight white Alabama clergymen who accused him of fomenting hatred in their state when King lived in Georgia. In his memorable "Letter from Birmingham Jail" he said, "I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea."

Forty-six years ago another young charismatic President went to the very symbol of Soviet Oppression in Berlin and directly inserted himself into Soviet affairs by identifying himself with the people who were risking their lives for liberty. "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner."

With every passing day I grow more concerned about what might be termed 'The Obama Doctrine.' What is it? As best as I can discern, it is a preservation of the status quo. As Obama himself put it, "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone." Really? We don't presume to know that elections are better than dictatorships? We don't presume to know that women being beaten in the streets for showing an elbow is brutal and refusing to let them ride a bicycle is a form of gender apartheid? Rarely before has an American president spoken out so forcefully in favor of moral relativism. So much for the Declaration of Independence which was written by Thomas Jefferson as a universal proclamation of human liberty asserting that freedom is an 'inalienable' right possessed by each of G-d's children.

President Obama possesses the potential for greatness. He has the intelligence, charisma, and above all oratorical gifts to be an outstanding leader. But it will all hinge on moral courage. He seems too cautious, too afraid of upsetting people, too much a believer in his own popularity to ever risk being unpopular.

Moses was just another spoiled Egyptian prince until the day he chanced upon an Israelite slave being beaten. The Bible relates, "And he looked this way and that way and saw there was no man. Then he smote the Egyptian." When Moses saw there was none but him to address this moral outrage, he sacrificed his cushy position in Egyptian society and acted to right a wrong. At that moment he became instantly unpopular in Egyptian society but he also become an audacious leader. It should be noted that the great liberator and lawgiver could not give a public speech. He was a stutterer whose mouthpiece was his brother Aaron. But then, real leadership does not involve having the best mouth but rather the most courageous heart.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's newest book, The Blessing of Enough: Rejecting Material Greed, Embracing Spiritual Hunger will be out in July. He is the founder of This World: The Values Network."

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