The Rise of 'Foreign Policy Birthers'

While domestic birthers think Obama is kin of the devil, the new "foreign policy birthers"—including John McCain, who urged more action in Libya this week—think he's a dithering Jimmy Carter, says Leslie H. Gelb.

04.23.11 9:17 PM ET

Those who are convinced that Barack Obama's birth certificate is a fabrication and believe he is the emission of some Kenyan voodoo ceremony, see the president as a black Damien, the offshoot of the Devil who can only do evil. No evidence will ever alter their revelation. And day after day, the news media actually gives these racist and political cynics air and print space. There's no excuse for this.

Then there are the foreign policy birthers, who see Obama as Jimmy Carter, a vacillating over-intellectualized liberal who can't make up his mind. To them, whatever Obama does abroad is wrong—seriously and dangerously wrong. If he supports the Mideast democrats, they chant that he's "betraying" our longtime allies. If he doesn't demand the removal of these longtime allies, they charge him with selling out the democrats. Of course, our birthers can say whatever they want. This is America. Nonetheless, I indulge myself in the fantasy that some editor or TV producer would ask one simple question to these foreign policy birthers: What exactly in heaven's name would you do?

Take Libya. Senator John McCain recently visited that sad land and called upon the White House to "intensify" military operations. What did he mean by that? He talked about resuming flights of the AC-130 and A-10 ground attack jets. Fine, only the U.S. military judged last week that such flights were highly vulnerable to ground-to-air missiles, and that there was high risk of these aircraft not being able to distinguish between the bad Libyans and the good rebel Libyans.

In any event and by all accounts, these potent jets by themselves would not even begin to turn the tide of war or end the seeming stalemate. And yet, birthers like McCain demand MORE without beginning to define what more means and what effects they think MORE will have on the battlefield or among Col. Gaddafi's entourage. They demand decisive action, but never specify what that would be. And keep in mind that the birthers almost always swear to the highest heavens that they are not recommending the introduction of U.S. or other nations' ground troops. Be honest, birthers: No one predicts an early end to the fighting without a large contingent of land forces, and no birther is going to propose that. So, what we have is the birthers slamming Obama for the stalemate in a war THEY pushed him into without THEIR offering the necessary means to win it.

Be honest, the birthers don't know a democratic revolutionary in Syria from a Los Angeles Dodger.

They are on a similar hobby horse in Syria. Take our newly deployed ambassador out of Damascus and proclaim our total solidarity with the "democratic revolutionaries." Be honest, the birthers don't know a democratic revolutionary in Syria from a Los Angeles Dodger, just like they don't know democratic rebels in Libya from Gaddafi's former cabinet minister, who is now leading the rebels. So, let's say Obama gratifies the birthers and says all power to the Syrian people. And let's say the Syrian people think that means the United States will support them and flood in the streets with renewed courage. And let's say President Assad's nasties kill them in droves. What do the birthers say Washington should do then? They say nothing. They just criticize Obama for not bellowing his everlasting support for the Syrian people whoever they might turn out to be. Remember, too, that Syria's neighbors like Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel are not calling for American democratic orations.

Birthers apparently believe that it is undemocratic to be pragmatic, and that it is un-American to look at the full range of U.S. interests in these terribly complicated Mideast countries. But while they're pounding the drums about Syria and Libya, at the moment, you don't hear them yelling for Saudi Arabia to democratize. Apparently, the birthers draw the humanitarian line at America's huge oil suppliers. Good. By the way, the Saudis draw their line in Bahrain, where a Shiite majority is trying to overturn a Sunni autocracy. The birthers keep pushing for more rhetoric pressure by Obama to democratize Bahrain. But why don't they just come right out and say, yes, we'd run the risk of further alienating Riyadh to get democracy in Bahrain? They don't say that. They just say beat up on the Saudis about Bahrain and completely ignore joining the broader policy issue.

You know, it's interesting that many of the rebels we're trying to help in Libya and Egypt are far more sensible about risks than the birthers. In interviews, they often speak of their fear about who will profit from the power vacuums opening up throughout the region. The birthers toss this consideration aside. They forget that in 1979, revolution in Iran was begun by genuine democrats. They don't like to talk about how democratic elections in Lebanon are resulting in increased power for radical Hezbollah. And for sure, birthers close their ears when you start reminding them that the democratic elections they demanded for Gaza under George W. Bush were won by the terrorist Hamas organization.

I myself have often written that President Obama resembles President Carter in his indecisiveness and desire to have things both ways. But in the Mideast today, Obama is exercising plain common sense in treading carefully. He has said again and again that America's aim is for a peaceful and stable transition to democracies throughout the region, that it is up to the people and governments of the region to make their transition, and that the United States stands ready to help. That is the right U.S. policy, the humanitarian one, the one best suited to result in real democracies. If the birthers have a better way, let them present that position with the details they insist of the president. Let them put up specific plans. The only way that will happen is if editors, reporters, producers, and TV anchors hold them to account.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.