"We do big things," President Barack Obama said of Americans in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. But as he presented his presidential laundry list of domestic policy ideas, big things were afoot in the Middle East. And he had nothing to say about them.
The morning of Obama's speech, the Egyptian people took to the streets to protest the 29-year dictatorship of President Husni Mubarak. Tens of thousands, encouraged by the ongoing protests that prompted the ouster of Tunisia's 23-year dictator Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali earlier this month, defied Mubarak's security forces in hopes of earning their place in Arab history.
The White House had nothing to say about these remarkable developments. And in his speech, Obama merely mentioned that in Tunisia, "the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia and supports the democratic aspirations of all people."
That's it. No mention of Egypt. No mention of the protests that are spreading across the rest of the region, from Yemen to Saudi Arabia to Jordan.
It only went downhill from there.
Today, Egypt is on fire. The Mubarak regime has cut cell phone and Internet services while it cracks down on peaceful protesters.
But Obama has effectively removed himself from the debate, blandly calling for calm on both sides. Vice President Joseph Biden, however, has gone as far as apologizing for the autocratic regime while it represses its people. "I would not refer to him as a dictator," Biden said of Mubarak in an interview with PBS.
This is hardly the first time Obama has run afoul of the forces of democracy in the Middle East.
On June 12, 2009, for example, when rigged elections handed another term to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, prompting hundreds of thousands of angry Iranians to protest in the streets, Obama said nothing. Rather than expressing his support for the nascent Green Movement, Obama remained silent, which encouraged the Iranian regime to mount a brutal crackdown on the protesters. Only then did Obama issue a mild statement of concern.
And just one month into his presidency, after a successful election of provincial council members in Iraq, Obama decided to withdraw U.S. troops there by August 2010. That projected date was based not on whether Iraq would be stable but on a campaign promise that had become both prudent and honorable to break.
As it turns out, the final date for withdrawal was worse than arbitrary. It was dangerous. The U.S. began pulling out while Iraqi leaders haggled over the composition of their political coalition. In other words, Obama pulled out before there was a government.
The contrast with Obama's predecessor is striking. President George W. Bush had spent seven of his eight years in the White House stressing the need for representative government in the Arab world. Without governments that allow people to shape the course of their own destinies and live as they choose, they are drawn to radical ideologies -- the same ideologies that, not coincidentally, threaten American lives.
Obama, however, determined that it was no longer important to push ossified Arab regimes to reform. So he shored up ties with the Arab dictators who for decades had kept their own people in misery.
Bush, who came under intense fire for his policies, noted that democracy would not take root overnight. But only two years after he left office, the autocracies of the region would start to crumble.
The protests that have rocked Tunisia and Egypt are spreading. From Algeria to Jordan and Yemen to Saudi Arabia, Arabs who have known nothing but dictatorship are trying to replicate the Tunisian model, calling for democratic reforms or even regime change.
How ironic that a man who campaigned on a mantra of "change" doesn't seem to hear them.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Treasury, is vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.