By Jules Witcover

President Obama is incurring considerable criticism for the pace and tone of his responses to the revolutions sweeping across North Africa and Middle East. Laments that he was too slow to push for the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have escalated to complaints that he has failed to call for Libya's strongman Moammar Gaddafi to step aside.

Obama's tardy condemnation of Gaddafi's brutal repression of protesting Libyans, saying only that "the suffering and bloodshed are outrageous and unacceptable" and that his regime "must be held accountable," did not mention the dictator himself. He spoke only of "a full range of options" under discussion with allies to deal with the violence, saying it was "imperative that the nations and peoples of the world speak with one voice."

It was said that one reason for Obama's caution was reasonable concern over delayed efforts to evacuate by ferry American diplomats, their families and other U.S. citizens from Tripoli, the capital bordering the Mediterranean Sea and scene of much of the mayhem.

But it also reflected awareness that Obama has few action options. Speculation as to imposing a no-fly zone over Tripoli and other Libyan cities was brushed aside by White House press secretary Jay Carney, as was Obama's failure to condemn Gaddafi. Carney said only that "we are not dictating outcome and we not telling the people of any country who their leaders should be or not be. That is up to the people of Libya to decide, just as it is up to the people of Egypt to decide."

All this caution may test the patience as well as the muscularity of Americans accustomed during the previous administration to more aggressive talk and action in foreign policy. Then, it reached the point of launching an unnecessary and calamitous war in Iraq that diverted U.S. manpower and treasure from the unfinished one in Afghanistan.

Obama's caution may also irritate those many Americans who applauded when Bush thumbed his nose at the United Nations in 2002, saying it risked "irrelevance" if it did not back the invasion, and who swallowed his assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. His later contention that it made no difference after Saddam Hussein was removed from power whether they existed or not added insult to injury.

What Obama has been doing throughout the political upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East has been pointedly counter to the impulsive and radical Bush foreign policy initiated in the 2002 run-up to the Iraq invasion, and continued thereafter in Bush's second-term declaration of intent to spread democracy throughout the Middle East.

The switch may not stimulate the testosterone of American neoconservatives yearning for those good old days. But it is in keeping with Obama's 2008 campaign pledge to turn American foreign policy away from the unilateral impulses of the previous eight years, and once again to the multilateral collective actions of the international community.

At the same time, Obama has been a deep disappointment to many Democratic liberals in the pace of his combat troop withdrawal from Iraq and in his acquiescence in the Bush-like troop surge into Afghanistan. They are also nervous about his keeping to his stated start of July for the combat withdrawals from the latter quagmire, and observations that the American presence there can continue to 2014 or beyond.

But he is adhering to the proper course in dealing with the latest international unrest and challenges -- strongly condemning the violence and supporting peaceful political change, committing this country to actions only through the structures of the international community. In doing so, he is gradually steering American foreign policy back from the reckless precipice over which it leaped in 2003 with such disastrous consequences.

What is unfolding currently across the Arab world should clearly cheered and encouraged by the Obama administration, and all humanitarian efforts possible within that caveat undertaken through the UN and other international bodies. But the days of American-induced regime change should be over and Obama appears to understand it -- and that his manhood is not at stake in the conduct of foreign policy, something his predecessor never seemed to grasp.


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