President Obama sought on Thursday to recalibrate the United States' response to the Arab Spring, giving new weight to issues of democracy, freedom and human rights in its approach to a rapidly changing Middle East. But although Obama's words were largely unassailable, they failed to address some of the more difficult realities of foreign policy.
Who could deny — or fail to be stirred by — the president's assertion that the United States opposes tyranny? Or that the United States believes in free speech and self-determination and the right of people everywhere to protest peacefully, whether in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Egypt or any other country? As long as they don't turn to violence, the president said, the United States will support them in their calls for freedom of religion, women's rights, economic justice and democracy.
These are long-standing American principles, at least on paper, and the times when the United States has followed through on them around the world have been among its proudest moments. But let's be clear: To say that the U.S. supports freedom and democracy is easy. In practice, foreign policy is a complicated business, and sometimes a morally opaque one. That's why the U.S. has so often found itself colluding with repressive regimes or failing to go to war to protect the innocent or turning a blind eye to gross violations of human rights.