Where is the leader of the free world?

As a young man growing up in Israel during the late 1990’s, my view of the world was profoundly influenced by Hollywood. I learned about relationships from Jerry Seinfeld, about the importance of family from Tony Soprano and the way to a woman’s heart from Carrie Bradshaw. The fact that Israeli, German, Italian and Australian teens all experienced life through the eyes of the twins Brandon and Brenda Walsh is perhaps the greatest testament to America’s stature as the world’s leading superpower.

One of the most commonly portrayed characters in American pop culture is that of the President of the United States. From Harrison’s Ford character in the action packed Air Force One, to the romantic American President played by Michael Douglas , there are certain traits that characterize fictitious American President. These include courage in the face of adversary, leadership in times of crisis and a certain degree of Chutzpah.

At a young age, captive audiences learn to refer to the American President by his additional title, the leader of the free world.  The fact that America has self-proclaimed its President to be the leader of the free world is perhaps the greatest testament to the manner in which it perceives itself.

Of course with adulthood comes disillusionment. One soon learns that there is no voice over in real life to guide you through the growing pains of adolescents and no prerecorded laughter at the end of a well delivered joke. In this regard, we are all similar to Community’s Abad, trying to come to grips with the rift between reality and fiction. And I have never experienced a greater disillusionment than the one I have faced since the beginning of the Arab Spring. 

The events currently taking place in the Middle East are breathtaking. In the past few months, the democratic revolution that erupted in Tunisia has swept the entire region leading to the fall of entrenched dictators in both Libya and Egypt. The fear factor that prevented millions from demanding the most basic of human rights has collapsed in the face of authentic popular uprisings. And nowhere is the struggle for democracy more inspiring than in Syria.

Today, entire families are standing in front of tanks  throughout Syria fighting for their freedom. As the country has spiraled into a civil war, it has become evident that this is a zero sum game. Should the rebels lose their struggle, all that awaits them is the brutality of Bashar Assad’s armed forces. Unconfirmed reports originating from Syria indicate that during this weekend alone some 400 people were massacred by the forces still loyal to the dictator.

To paraphrase Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, as the battle over freedom rages on in Syria, I couldn’t help but wonder -where is the leader of the free world?

The Syrians taking to the street are fighting in the name of the truths that America once held to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. They are dying in the name of the values that defined America since its birth, values such as the sanctity of freedom. So why have they been deserted by Washington? Why has the US settled for monitoring the situation from afar? Where is Harrison Ford to send in the Marines? Where is Bruce Willis to play a modern General Schwarzkopf?

It would appear that in contrast to his Hollywood counterparts, President Obama is more reluctant to commit American soldiers to yet another military campaign in the Middle East. This could be the result of the high price in American lives that America has paid in Afghanistan and Iraq. It could also be the result of the upcoming elections that are still too close to call. But a crisis by its nature never comes at a convenient time. It is one’s ability to cope with this reality that is at the core of true leadership.

Unlike NFL quarterbacks, a superpower can’t lead from behind; it must be at the forefront of the struggle to promote the values it lives by. From what I have learned from television, Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on anything. They differ on tax cuts, Medicare, school vouchers and the debt ceiling. But perhaps they can agree that the Syrians have earned their backing.

As a citizen of the Middle East, I believe that now is the time for American leadership. Now is the time to narrow the gap between fiction and reality. 

Ilan Manor


About the Author
Dr. Ilan Manor (PhD Oxford University) is a diplomacy scholar at Tel Aviv University. Manor's recent book, The Digitalization of Diplomacy, explores how digital technologies have reshaped diplomatic practices. Manor has contributed to several publications including The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. According to his Twitter bio, Manor is the inventor of the ashtray. He blogs at