Obama, failing on moral leadership?

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of “The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television.” Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns.

Story highlights

Frida Ghitis: The world stands shivering in a cold moral vacuum

Ghitis: For example, the president said he couldn't solve some pressing problems

She says setting high standards only to leave them unachieved demoralizes people

Ghitis: Obama needs to address Gitmo, Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, sequester

CNN  — 

If any doubt remains that the world stands shivering in a cold moral vacuum – devoid of meaningful leadership – they are quickly fading.

The starkest example came in Washington on Tuesday, when President Barack Obama, inarguably the world’s most powerful man, stood before the press and recited a series of positions, some of them built on solid moral arguments, only to conclude that there is not much he can do to turn them into reality.

Obama explained at length why the world cannot tolerate the use of chemical weapons in Syria, why the U.S. should not keep open the prison at Guantanamo Bay, why Washington is acting foolishly with the infamous “sequester” – the blunt and unjust budget cutter. But then he went on to explain just how difficult it is to do anything to solve these problems.

Frida Ghitis

The president is smart and eloquent. But leadership, especially for someone who has achieved that level of power, requires three elements: It must communicate a clear vision and a commitment to its realization; it must mobilize and inspire others into action; and it must produce results.

Proclaiming high standards only to leave them unachieved demoralizes those you might have hoped to inspire. Rather than bending the arc of history toward justice, it unleashes a chain reaction of disenchantment.

Consider the Guantanamo prison. You might have thought Obama was a candidate again when he declared, just as he did years ago on the campaign trail that America must shut down the prison. Holding prisoners without charges and trial, he said persuasively, is “contrary to who we are.” It’s not just an ethical question, it is a practical matter. “It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”

He might have added that Guantanamo is also the world’s most expensive prison, costing about $800,000 per prisoner per year, or some $800 million each year.

Everyone knows that Congress has made it difficult to close the prison. But legal experts say the Obama administration could do much more and, in fact, “has done little to make good on [its] promise” to shut down the prison. The executive branch, as legal expert David Cole notes, has a number of options, including prosecuting detainees or declaring the transfer of some detainees to other countries is “in the national security interest” of the U.S.

Obama came to office with a mandate to restore America’s standing in the world. He went a long way in achieving that simply by not being George W. Bush, but it’s difficult to point to real successes in fulfilling his pledge to exert moral leadership.

America and the rest of the world seem frozen in place with major institutions and personalities incapable of responding to challenges.

One can argue that it is not America’s job to fix the world’s problems, to stop the killings in distant lands even if, as we now know, those killings involve horrific weapons banned by international agreements that set a limit to our inhumanity even in times of war.

I am referring to Syria, which allegedly used chemical weapons in a two-year-old civil war. Taking action to stop the use of chemical weapons is in the interest of everyone on earth, with the possible exception of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Chemical weapons can kill in more brutal ways than other instruments of death. And if they are successfully used, dictators and terrorists will make more of them. They make us all less safe.

Since this problem is not just America’s, perhaps we should leave it up to others to act. But who?

Who in the world today has the moral standing and the practical ability to take meaningful action? It would be nice if the conscience of humanity had a way to express itself and make a difference. The obvious place would be the United Nations and its Security Council. But the UNSC is hopelessly mired in power struggles. On this as in so many other issues, the power politics involving Russia, China and the U.S. stop the world from speaking out with one voice.

Obama had repeatedly drawn a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, warning President Bashar al-Assad that using or moving chemical stockpiles was the one thing that would “change my calculus” on that war.

The “red line” has become an object of tragicomic ridicule, especially after Tuesday’s press conference. Cartoonists in the Middle East and elsewhere are joking about Obama and his red line, depicting the Syrian dictator painting a red line right over the American president’s face.

During his press conference, the president seemed to backtrack. What initially seemed like a clear, if controversial, position suddenly became so complicated and hazy that even the Washington Post editorial board called it a “muddle.”

Eventually, the United States will have to take a stand and help Syria’s rebels, without sending American troops into its civil war. But so far, Obama’s equivocations are exposing America’s self-proclaimed place as “leader of the free world” to ridicule.

Sure, Obama faces a stubborn Congress that makes his life difficult. And Americans’ exhaustion with wars overseas undoubtedly makes him more reluctant to act, but the president’s persuasive powers can be deployed to good effect, especially since meaningful results can be achieved without the proverbial American boots on the ground.

Of course, the problems he has to deal with are difficult and often offer choices between bad and worse. But the time is right for a new display of conviction, of effectiveness, of leadership.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.