As Middle East burns, Obama fiddles

Political consultants often use the term "optics" to describe how consequential events are perceived by the general public.

With regard to the present Middle East crisis, the president's optics are way off course.


There was the Las Vegas fundraiser following the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya. This was followed by a "Letterman" appearance while violent anti-American demonstrations were breaking out in Europe, Africa and Asia. Then, instead of a defense of U.S. values, pandering messages to the Muslim world in response to an amateurish anti-Muslim video that almost nobody (including the protesters) has seen. Finally, a visit to "The View" rather than sit-downs with world leaders at the United Nations.

For an Obama campaign heretofore bent on marketing the president's foreign policy credentials (Osama bin Laden, drone warfare, the Afghan "surge"), such decisions make for bad optics indeed.


You see, this president began his tenure with an aggressive outreach to the Muslim world, including miscreant regimes such as Iran. (Recall candidate Obama's promise to sit down with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "without pre-conditions".) And the president's message was hard to miss, if difficult to swallow.

America had been arrogant. We had followed a self-serving and imperial path. Our adventurism had come at a steep price in the Islamic world. But we now understood the gravity of our mistakes. We would be more sensitive and understanding in the future. (Interestingly, there was no mention of U.S. blood spilled to protect Muslim lives in Kosovo, nor the American dollars spent on humanitarian missions in numerous Muslim countries.)

The administration's new hands-off approach was subsequently reflected in the American response to civil wars in Syria. It was the rationale behind the administration's decision to ignore the democratic uprising in Iran. And it provides disturbing context to the president's choppy relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the besieged state of Israel.

But these "good will" gestures have gone unrewarded. Accommodations from the intended beneficiaries are not to be found. Indeed, anti-Americanism is on the rise throughout a tense Middle East. Further, the president's decision to go "all in" on yet another round of appeasement may not play so well in an America focused on the sight of a murdered ambassador and violent anti-U.S. demonstrations around the world.

Americans are well acquainted with the murderous history of radical Islam. From the Marine barracks in Beirut, to our African embassies, to the USS Cole, to the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks, the last 30 years have borne witness to the death and destruction generated by this perverse interpretation of Islam.

Today, the presidential campaign provides voters context to re-examine the president's more respectful, indulgent approach. "Restarts" may make for good sound bites in the heady days of a new administration, but four years down the road, voters have a right to expect tangible results. And the results of the Obama restart have been unimpressive at best.

The celebrated Arab Spring has degenerated into an Arab Winter. A heretofore low-profile Muslim Brotherhood is now ascendant. And American influence in this important part of the world is at a nadir.

It just might be time for a new (and aggressive) message from the administration: a clearly articulated mission statement that reiterates America's right to protect its citizens and reaffirms our intent to hunt down terrorists wherever they may hide.


Speaking of timely messages, where is the voice of moderate Islam during this time of international crisis?

This is the moment for the silent majority of practicing Muslims to engage. A good start would be for prominent imams and opinion leaders (in the U.S. and elsewhere) to condemn the terrorists in a very public way.

Americans would cheer this development; we are quite weary of the relentless, radical venom directed our way. We are running out of patience with regimes that fuel anti-Americanism while asking for foreign aid assistance from U.S. taxpayers.

Today, radical Islam presents an existential threat to our country and our culture. Challenging times require a unified response. It's time for the leaders of one of the world's great religions to step up to the plate. America is waiting. The world is waiting.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics — and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is