What do the US and the Middle East have in common?

RANCHO SANTA FE, CA., May 24, 2011 – A funny thing happened while listening to President Obama’s speech about the Middle East last week.  If you juxtapose his pronouncements with respect to the Middle East with the course we are actually following in the United States, it paints an interesting picture.

After an obligatory compliment about how Hillary Clinton is “one of the finest Secretaries of State in our nation’s history,” the President said, “Today, I would like to talk about change.”  It was almost a throwback to the 2008 campaign trail.

Then, he spoke briefly about how “bin Laden was no martyr” and how “his (bin Laden’s) agenda focused on what he could destroy – not what he could build.”  Well said, Mr. President!

It was then that an intellectual revelation began to evolve.  The trick was to substitute the United States for whatever country the President was referring.

For example, the President began talking about the upheaval in the Middle East as follows:  “That story of self-determination began six months ago in Tunisia … (when) a young vendor … was devastated when a police officer confiscated his cart.”  Substitute “United States” for “Tunisia” and the phrase “when a bank foreclosed on his home” for “when a police officer confiscated his cart” and you begin to get the picture.

The President continued, “This was not unique.  It is the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world – the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity.”

How prophetic!  Are not many of our citizens denied their dignity because of the failure of our government to “provide for the common defense and general welfare” when it comes to this country’s economic stability?

President Obama explained, “In too many countries, a citizen like that young vendor had nowhere to turn – no honest judiciary to hear his case; no independent media to give him voice; no credible political party to represent his views; no free and fair election where he could choose his leader.”

Let’s see … “no honest judiciary.”  Didn’t constituents of both major parties in Wisconsin just spend over $3 million in campaign ads to try to elect a “favorable” Justice to that State’s Supreme Court?  Who says, “Justice is blind?”

Then there’s the phrase “no independent media to give him voice.”  Do you recall those on the Right arguing about the left-wing media (or “Lame Stream Media” as Sarah Palin likes to call it)?  However, let’s not forget about those on the Left who think that conservative talk radio should be banned or who refer to Fox News as “Faux News.”

“No credible political party to represent his views” is almost axiomatic, and “no free and fair election where he could choose his leader” comes a little too close to home.  Elections are virtually bought and sold in today’s political environment … if not directly, then indirectly by the countless millions of dollars spent on misleading attack ads.  Then, there’s the problem with falsified voter registration … all in the name of Party politics.  On the bright side, some of us will apparently still be voting long after we’re dead.

A little later, the President stated, “In the face of these challenges, too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere.  The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half-century after the end of colonialism.”

Luckily, we never witness that type of “misdirection” in the United States.  Our politicians demonstrate leadership by accepting their responsibility to improve upon the circumstances they “inherited” without feeling the need to blame their predecessors … well, at least a few of them do.

Then, President Obama stated that “Divisions of tribe, ethnicity, and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else.”

This is almost a basic tenet of political power in the United States.  If you don’t believe me, just read the Democratic and Republican National Platforms as they’re exposed in The Left isn’t Right / The Right is Wrong.  I call it the “Oppressed Minority Strategy.”

The President correctly acknowledged that “change of this magnitude does not come easily.  In our day and age – a time of 24-hour news cycles, and constant communication – people expect the transformation of the region to be resolved in a matter of weeks.”

The reality is that we live in a Twitter world:  we lose interest in about 140 hours (rather than 140 characters).  Think about it.  The nuclear incident in Japan hasn’t just disappeared; the debt ceiling is still an issue; the Midwest is still flooded … but we lose interest and move on to the next big story.  Heck, Newt Gingrich’s viability as a Presidential candidate didn’t last 140 hours!

Then, the speech became even more fascinating.  The President said, “… we will not tolerate aggression across borders, and we will keep our commitments to friends and partners.”   Yet, we tolerate aggression across our own borders and prosecute States that have a compelling need to defend their citizens.

Some members of our Jewish community may also take umbrage with how well we “keep our commitments to friends and partners” given some of the President’s follow-up comments about Israel.  But let’s not quibble about whether his position “bordered” on being pretentious.

According to the President, “Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder.” 

Speaking of “fear and repression,” how recently have you heard Republicans warn us of an impending economic collapse if we don’t eliminate programs like Planned Parenthood from the budget?  Correspondingly, how recently have you heard Democrats claim that Republicans are plotting to end Medicare and Social Security because they’d rather give tax breaks to “big oil?”  There’s an old phrase that just seems to be appropriate:  “Poppycock!”

Continuing, the President said, “We support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders.”  Here! Here! … as they say in England.

Unfortunately, “free speech” is too often shrouded by an attack of “political correctness.”  You’re entitled to have an opinion but only if it is in alignment with a particular Party’s position (and not necessarily the Party with which you are affiliated).  Otherwise, you’re “ignorant,” “radical,” “unpatriotic,” “racist,” “ageist,” “sexist,” or a “religious fanatic.”

You have “the freedom of peaceful assembly” … unless, of course, you’re a union or Tea Party member.  Then, you’re a stupid, violent thug if you gather anywhere to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

You have “freedom of religion” as long as it’s a fashionable, politically correct, designer-label type of religion … or no religion at all.  But if you want to sing Christmas carols on a street corner or wear a yarmulke while you shop … well, God forbid!

Then there’s the issue of “equality for men and women under the rule of law.”  A concept like that would require equal pay for equal work, identical promotional opportunities, and a whole raft of societal changes that some people apparently just aren’t ready to embrace.  It could even lead to a discussion about the whole “same-sex marriage” thing … but as many of our politicians have explained in the Oval Office and to their housekeeping staff, traditional marriage is sacred.

As for “the right to choose your own leaders” … well, that’s also a tough pill to swallow.  Caucuses tell us who our candidates are going to be (whatever a “caucus” is).

Picture what was previously a smoke-filled room (now banned by political correctness and a greater awareness of cancer) replaced by a room filled with cappuccinos, lattes, and herbal teas of assorted flavors … and a bunch of political zealots with limited real-world experience who believe our country would be better served if only their Party existed.  They struggle to plan a $ 25,000-a-plate fund-raiser at which their candidate will pontificate about his or her concern for the poor.  Much later, you get to pick from among the scraps of candidates who survive the vetting process.

Moving on … the President said, “This speaks to the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime, which says it stand (sic) for the rights of protesters abroad, yet suppresses its people at home.”  While in our country, certain high-profile political officials have stated how they “stand in solidarity with the Egyptian / Libyan / Syrian / (name the country of your choice) protesters” while demeaning Tea Party protesters to be violent, racist individuals who are more akin to Nazis.  In honor of former Navy SEAL, Mr. Rogers, “Can you say hypocrite?  Sure you can!”

President Obama made another important point:  “We will support open access to the Internet, and the right of journalists to be heard – whether it’s a big news organization or a blogger.  In the 21st century, information is power; the truth cannot be hidden; and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens.”  So, why do we seem so bent on tempering the flow of information in our own country?  Do you favor Net Neutrality but support the concept of WikiLeaks … or vice versa?  Confusing, isn’t it?

Ignoring the fact that our country is a republic, the former Senior Lecturer on Constitutional Law continued, “We look forward to working with all who embrace genuine and inclusive democracy.  What we will oppose is an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others, and to hold power through coercion – not consent.  Because democracy depends not only on elections, but also strong and accountable institutions, and respect for the rights of minorities.”

No one can argue with what the President said.  He’s absolutely right.  It’s just that in practice, our government has grown to a point that would frighten our Founding Fathers.  Federal departments and agencies have grown almost virally as have the regulations they promulgate and the oversight they assume.  Are you feeling a little “coerced?”  Washington, Jefferson, and Madison probably would be.  “Consent” seems to come into play only within the sense that a certain Frenchman’s attorneys might be inclined to use.

Would you describe our “democracy” as being led by “strong and accountable institutions?”  Consider that to be a rhetorical question.

How about “respect for the rights of minorities?”  Do our politicians “respect” minorities … or use them to fashion sympathetic voting blocks?

Then, the President hit the nail on the head.  “After all, politics alone has not put protesters into the streets.  The tipping point for so many people is the more constant concern of putting food on the table and providing for a family.  Too many in the region wake up with few expectations other than making it through the day, and perhaps the hope that their luck will change.  Throughout the region, many young people have a solid education, but closed economies leave them unable to find a job.  Entrepreneurs are brimming with ideas, but corruption leaves them unable to profit from them.”

Quick!  Is he talking about the Middle East or the United States?

The President goes on to say, “Drawing from what we’ve learned around the world, we think it’s important to focus on trade, not just aid; and investment, not just assistance.  The goal must be a model in which protectionism gives way to openness; the reigns of commerce pass from the few to the many, and the economy generates jobs for the young.”

This should remind us of the distinction made in the Declaration of Independence; specifically, that among our unalienable rights is the “pursuit of Happiness.”   We are not guaranteed happiness.  We are only guaranteed the right to pursue it.  Therefore, “it’s important to focus on trade, not just aid; and investment, not just assistance.”

Unless we endorse a society that challenges us to pursue our own happiness rather than one that provides for us, “the reigns of commerce” will never “pass from the few to the many.”   Until then, far too many people will lack the motivation to exercise the “Liberty” they have to chase their dreams.  It’s not about redistributing wealth; it’s about inspiring people to create their own wealth.

As Thomas Jefferson once said, “A government big enough to give you everything you want, is big enough to take away everything you have.”  If we move away from the delusion that government is responsible for our “Happiness,” a lot of budget cuts should become “self-evident.”

President Obama ended his speech with “… the United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves.  Now, we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.”

Now that would be a good starting point for our country!

Throughout the speech, the President’s tone and presentation style were excellent.  In retrospect, many of the points he made were as applicable to the United States as they were to the Middle East.  Perhaps if we acted upon the President’s foreign advice within the context of our own country, he wouldn’t find the need to apologize for our arrogance.  We would be in a position to lead by example.  Until then, the President will continue to tell the world, “Do as I say, not as I do.”  


T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.

This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, The Common Sense Czar, in the Communities Section of The Washington Times.