Weakness in American foreign policy in one region often invites challenges elsewhere, because our adversaries carefully follow diminished American resolve. Similarly, presidential indecisiveness, whether because of uncertainty or internal political struggles, signals that the United States may not respond to international challenges in clear and coherent ways.
Taken together, weakness and indecisiveness have proved historically to be a toxic combination for America’s global interests. That is exactly the combination we now see under President Obama. If anything, his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize only underlines the problem. All of Obama’s campaign and inaugural talk about “extending an open hand” and “engagement,” especially the multilateral variety, isn’t exactly unfolding according to plan. Entirely predictably, we see more clearly every day that diplomacy is not a policy but only a technique. Absent presidential leadership, which at a minimum means clear policy direction and persistence in the face of criticism and adversity, engagement simply embodies weakness and indecision.
Obama is no Harry Truman. At best, he is reprising Jimmy Carter. At worst, the real precedent may be Ethelred the Unready, the turn-of the-first-millennium Anglo-Saxon king whose reputation for indecisiveness and his unsuccessful paying of Danegeld -- literally, “Danish tax” -- to buy off Viking raiders made him history’s paradigmatic weak leader.
Beyond the disquiet (or outrage for some) prompted by the president’s propensity to apologize for his country’s pre-Obama history, Americans increasingly sense that his administration is drifting from one foreign policy mistake to another. Worse, the current is growing swifter, and the threats more pronounced, even as the administration tries to turn its face away from the world and toward its domestic priorities. Foreign observers, friend and foe alike, sense the same aimlessness and drift. French President Nicolas Sarkozy had to remind Obama at a Sept. 24 U.N. Security Council meeting that “we live in the real world, not a virtual one.”
Examples of weakness abound, and the consequences are readily foreseeable.
Canceling the Polish and Czech missile defense bases is understood in Moscow and Eastern European capitals as backing down in the face of Russian bluster and belligerence. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened the day after our 2008 election to deploy missiles targeting these assets unless they were canceled, a threat duly noted by the Russian media when Obama canceled the sites. Given candidate Obama’s reaction to the 2008 Russia-Georgia war -- calling on both sides to exercise restraint -- there is little doubt that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s project to re-extend Russian hegemony over as much of the former Soviet Union as he can will continue apace. Why should he worry about Washington?
Obama’s Middle East peace process has stalled, most recently because he set a target for an end to Israeli settlement expansion, couldn’t meet it and then proceeded as though he hadn’t meant what he said originally. By insisting that Israel freeze settlements as a precondition to renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Obama drew a clear line. But when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu withstood Obama’s pressure, Obama caved, hosting a photo-op with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that strengthened Netanyahu and weakened Abbas just when Obama wanted to achieve exactly the opposite. However one views the substantive outcome of this vignette, Obama himself looked the weakest of all. It could well be years before his Middle East policy gets back up off the ground.
On nuclear nonproliferation, North Korea responded to the “open hand” of engagement by testing its second nuclear device, continuing an aggressive ballistic missile testing program, cooperating with other rogue states and kidnapping and holding hostage two American reporters. Obama’s reaction is to press for more negotiations, which simply encourages Pyongyang to up the ante.
Iran is revealed to have been long constructing an undeclared, uninspected nuclear facility that makes a mockery of almost seven years of European Union negotiation efforts. Forced to deal publicly with this deeply worrying threat, Obama proposes the equivalent of money-laundering for nuclear threats: Iranian uranium enriched in open, unambiguous defiance of four Security Council resolutions will be enriched to higher levels in Russia, and then returned to be burned in a Tehran reactor -- ostensibly for peaceful purposes. Sarkozy again captured the growing international incredulity in his noteworthy Security Council speech: “I support America’s ‘extended hand.’ But what have these proposals for dialogue produced for the international community? Nothing but more enriched uranium and more centrifuges.”
Finally, Obama’s agonizing, very public reappraisal of his own 7-month-old Afghanistan policy epitomizes indecisiveness. While there is no virtue in sustaining policy merely for continuity’s sake, neither is credit due for too-quickly adopting policies without appreciating the risks entailed and then fleeing precipitously when the risks become manifest. The administration’s stated reason for its policy re-evaluation was widespread fraud in Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 presidential election. But this explanation is simply not credible. Did not the administration’s generals and diplomats on the ground, not to mention United Nations observers, see the election mess coming? Was the Hamid Karzai administration’s cupidity and corruption overlooked or ignored during Obama’s original review and revision of his predecessor’s policy?
The unmistakable inference is that Obama did not carefully think through his March Afghan policy, or did not have full confidence then or now in Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal or Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, or that it is now politically inconvenient among increasingly antiwar Democrats to follow through on that policy.
None of these explanations reflect credit on the president. He is dithering. Whatever decision Obama reaches on Afghanistan, his credibility and leadership have been badly wounded by his continuing public display of indecisiveness.
Our international adversaries undoubtedly welcome all of these “resets” in U.S. foreign policy, but Americans should be appalled at how much of our posture in the world has already been given away. If Obama’s first nine months indicate the direction of the next 39, we still have a long way to fall.