President Barack Obama’s most telling act on the international stage may have come in a meeting in early 2012 in Seoul, South Korea, with Russia’s seat-warming president, Dmitri Medvedev.
Before the two got up to leave, President Obama asked — in an exchange caught on an open mic — that Moscow cut him some slack. “This is my last election,” Obama explained. “After my election I have more flexibility.” Medvedev promised to “transmit this information to Vladimir,” referring, of course, to the power behind the throne, Vladimir Putin.
When he received the message, Putin must have chortled at the heartbreaking naïveté of it. Here was the leader of the free world pleading for more time to get along with his Russian friends on the basis of an utterly risible assumption of good will. Here was a believer in the policy of “reset” who still didn’t get that the reset was going nowhere. Here was weakness compounded by delusion.
Putin didn’t care about Obama’s flexibility or inflexibility so much as any opportunity to thwart the United States. Obama said that Syrian president Bashar Assad had to go; Putin worked to make sure he stayed. Obama said that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden had to return to the United States; Putin granted him asylum. When a few weeks ago Putin related to a group of Russian students that he had told Snowden to stop doing damage to the United States, the students did the only thing appropriate upon hearing such a patently insincere claim — they laughed out loud.
Vladimir Putin surely isn’t the only one in the world who regards the president of the United States with barely disguised contempt. As the Syria crisis burns hotter, President Obama has never looked so feckless. He has perfected the art of speaking reproachfully and carrying little or no stick. The grand theory of his foreign policy coming into office, that more national self-abasement would win us greater international good will and respect, has done the opposite. Adversaries don’t fear us, and allies don’t trust us.
The administration has a knack for believing in the wrong people. “There is a different leader in Syria now,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of Assad in 2011, touting his reformist credentials. This was just before Assad launched the slaughter of his opponents in good earnest. In response, the administration put its faith in an international peace initiative, led by the redoubtable former U.N. honcho Kofi Annan, that had zero chance of resolving the conflict.
When Assad prepared to use chemical weapons last year, President Obama warned of a fearsome “red line,” with no intention of following up on it. When Assad called his bluff, the president announced that he would provide small arms to the rebels in retaliation, but he hasn’t actually done it yet. Is it any wonder that Bashar Assad would, like Vladimir Putin, think he had taken the measure of the man? Last week, Assad killed hundreds in another chemical-weapons attack.
The sharply worded warning ignored by everyone has become the Obama administration’s characteristic rhetorical trope. Its warning to the military junta in Egypt not to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood was taken with all the seriousness of its admonitions to Assad to step aside. The Obama administration has responded to the resulting crackdown by suspending some aid to Egypt in secret, at the same time that the Saudis — one of our closest allies — say it doesn’t matter what we do because they will replace whatever aid we cut.
Elsewhere in the region, Iran progresses toward a nuclear weapon, Iraq reverts to civil war, and al-Qaeda gains in Yemen and Somalia. In an essay in Commentary magazine, analyst Elliott Abrams argues that the guiding principle of Obama’s foreign policy is, as he put it in an early speech as a presidential candidate, to end the old “habits” of American international activism and leadership. The new habit, evidently, will be tolerating irrelevance and humiliation.