In the last two weeks, we learned that Bashar Assad has dismantled only 5 percent of his WMD arsenal, despite President Obama’s soaring rhetoric to the contrary. Russia violated a long-observed agreement with the U.S. about testing missiles. Iran’s take on the negotiations over its bomb program bears no resemblance to our interpretation. Chinese officials now happily leak fantastic stories about using their military to punish Japan. All that is trumped by veiled threats from the Sunni Gulf monarchies, terrified of Iran, to buy a bomb or two from Pakistan. We hear other rumors that even China thinks the new leadership in North Korea is unhinged and is not worried about friendly warnings from Beijing.
Whether all these incidents are minor or serious, and whether they are random or interconnected and perceived as proof of the loss of U.S. deterrence, depends on which particular bad actor is studying them to try to guess whether the Obama administration will do anything should a provocateur start a war or attempt to redraw a regional map.
In short, our Icarus-in-Chief, without much foreign-policy experience but with youthful zeal and good intentions, soared far too high for his flimsy waxen wings. Now they are melting, and as the American commander-in-chief careens back to earth, lots of those below are wondering what will come next. Still, there is a lot of irony as Obama freefalls to earth.
Everyone assumed the Europeans were conveniently pacifist and had eroded their defenses because they could — given the fact that the United States had guaranteed the safety of Europe throughout the Cold War and for another quarter-century after it ended. Americans accepted that Europeans could afford to ankle-bite the interventionist United States because the latter’s pledge to the alliance was unquestionable, and such were the natural psychological gymnastics of patron and client.
Then came the waxen Obama soaring on hope and change, the president who would remake the world along the lines envisioned in a college faculty lounge or a Chicago organizing session. Obama was not a Buchananite isolationist who would be easy for Europeans to caricature. Rather, he is a postmodern, postracial progressive, who deeply felt either that traditional U.S. alliances were not worth the commitment, or that the U.S. was properly moving away from its European heritage and thus without any need for special trans-Atlantic relationships, or that an internationally engaged America came at the expense of dollars better spent on redistributive entitlements at home — or all three and more still.
The result is that the Europeans are increasingly bewildered if not a little anxious. They cannot reduce Obama, a man of the Left, to a caricatured Texan who often misunderstands the world, because Obama is an Ivy Leaguer who has never yet understood it.
They cannot whine about American ubiquity, because Obama agrees with their rhetoric that the U.S. should recede from the world stage. They cannot out-left America, because Obama is to the left of almost all the European leaders. And they cannot offer any more sermons about being patient with the world’s aggressors, because Obama is not so much patient as uninterested. Without an engaged U.S., Bashar Assad, Vladimir Putin, the Chinese Communists, Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych, the unhinged North Koreans, and radical Islamists could not care less about what the E.U. thinks or about the consequences of its much-hyped soft power. In sum, Europe cannot play Athens when there is no longer a Rome to back it up. The result is a sort of sad update of Stalin’s thuggish but instructive rhetorical question to French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval when the latter in 1935 suggested that the Soviets reach out to the Catholic hierarchy in order to thwart Hitler: “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?”
Then there are the fantasies about the Chinese, who are always supposedly just on the cusp of translating their economic miracle into political reform and positive global citizenship. That myth likewise is being exploded by semi-official quotes from Chinese intellectuals and advisers. China is not merely flexing its new global muscles. It is not just carefully testing the air and naval space of its terrified neighbors. Instead, it is blunt about its visceral hatred of Japan, and sometime even candid in outlining military operations that it would like to wage against it. No nuances, no trial balloons, no diplomats: just plain unadulterated enmity toward Japan and unapologetic admissions that when Japan and the U.S. uncouple, then China will do what it pleases to Japan — for no other reason than, to paraphrase Dirty Harry, it likes to. In the next decade, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and perhaps even Australia and the Philippines will attempt to judge whether the present U.S. abdication is an aberration, or whether it will be institutionalized. If the latter, they will either go nuclear, or make concessions to the Chinese.
Another fantasy that recent events have exposed for what it always was is the so-called Arab Spring. Do we remember why the Arabs did not enjoy consensual government, transparency, and civil society? First, it was because of European colonialism. When the Europeans left, the baleful legacy of colonization supposedly persisted. Then the obstacle to reform was the cynical realpolitik of the Cold War, in which the superpowers used the Arab people as pawns on their regional chessboards. Then the impediment to consensual government was oil realpolitik, as the West supposedly ignored the Jeffersonian sentiments of the Arab Street and cynically empowered the sheiks. Then it was the American interventions in the Middle East to foster democracy that upset the “delicate equilibrium” of the region.
The Arab Spring, however, was at last the indigenous cry of the heart from the Arab people, as America — except for the clumsy Libyan nudge and the disastrous applause for Mohamed Morsi — sat by, watched, and waited. Three years later, Libya, Syria, Egypt, and the general regional turmoil suggest instead that tribalism, religious intolerance, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and authoritarianism were mostly indigenous and did not need British colonists, Russian generals, American oil men, or the Bush family to activate them. To paraphrase Ward Churchill, with the American recessional from the region, the long-awaited Middle East chickens are coming home to roost.
The nosedive of the melting Obama will leave the world a more dangerous place, but also serve as another mythological reminder of why the pretentious without real wings should not try to fly.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.