I am one of those who have been noisily and prayerfully hoping that President Obama’s inexhaustible deferences to America’s critics, and blandishments heaped on the world’s most antagonistic regimes, were just part of a coalition-building exercise before bringing appropriate pressure on them. After nearly eleven months, it is difficult to sustain such a hopeful view.
The glibness with which the Mideast peace process would be restarted, like the assault on nuclear arms, carbon emissions, and health care, was cautionary. But in the election of America’s first non-white president, there was room for hope, including by Mr. Obama himself, that the United States could disarm some of its international critics with the assurance of a new start in Washington from a fresh perspective.
But in international relations, all that really matters apart from questions of overwhelming moral clarity, such as existed in favor of Roosevelt and Churchill over Hitler, and with Reagan and Thatcher over Brezhnev, is military and economic strength. It is helpful to have unusually capable expositors of foreign policy, like Dean Acheson or Henry Kissinger, but, as Bismarck famously said, the issues between Great Powers are resolved by “blood and iron,” whether they are actually deployed and expended or not.
Richard Nixon was able to build a relationship with China only after that country’s relations with the USSR had descended to the verge of war, the U.S. had effected an almost complete withdrawal from Vietnam without bringing down the non-Communist government in Saigon, and all unusual political unrest in the U.S. had subsided. President Truman was able to set up a functioning Western Alliance when the U.S. was, as Mr. Churchill stated, all that stood in the way of Stalin’s occupation of Western Europe. The United States has not been strong in the world since the debacle of Iraqi nation-building, in about 2005, after which almost the entire U.S. ground-forces conventional military capability has been mired in the Near East, while harebrained bipartisan economic policy has colossally indebted the country.
Mr. Obama had little chance of achieving any of his ambitious targets on the world stage until the U.S. was again objectively strong, if then. At a minimum, this would require the end of the terminal current-account deficits, the emergence of a robust and sensibly based economy, and a satisfactory de-escalation of the Afghan and Iraqi commitments. There is cause for hope on the first point, great hope on the last, but only elemental progress on the economy, which is battered by the specter of a decade of trillion-dollar annual federal budget deficits and ludicrous distractions of health care and energy-use extravagance. The idea that the world and America could be remade on the strength of the Obama brand was just an effusion of wild egotism and naïveté that has sullied the brand. Little could be achieved and little has been.
In a triumph of hope over reason, I chinned myself on the theory that the talk of abolishing nuclear arms was atmospheric mood changing to assist in organizing a response to the nuclear military ambitions of North Korea and Iran. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty requires the nuclear powers to work toward nuclear disarmament, which they have not done, apart from containing the superpower arms race by the bloodless disappearance of one of the superpowers.
As with any club, the members have tried to close the membership-admission door behind them, and turned a blind eye to some crashers and not others. France, Israel, China, and South Africa (which has since disarmed) entered with little or no comment, while the Clinton administration took upon itself the insane response to India and Pakistan when they became nuclear powers of a double embargo, which failed, increased tensions, and facilitated terrorism throughout the world. Reversing that policy was one of the foreign-policy successes of the George W. Bush administration, as both countries are now behaving as allies.
There are indications that China, which is the only power that can seriously influence North Korea, is finally responding to the great chicken game, and may be blackballing its Dear Leader from the nuclear club. But Iran is flaunting its sponsorship by Russia and China, who, along with Pakistan, have colluded to assist Iran’s nuclear military program. The Iranians have a respectable technical argument that they have as much right to such weapons as the countries that already possess them.
The counter-argument is that Iran is an enthusiastic terror-sponsoring country, especially through Hezbollah and Hamas, and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has often called for the elimination of Israel. The Obama effort to “engage” the Iranian regime has included soft-pedaling the fraudulent reelection of the president and enduring insolences and acts of negotiating bad faith with a stoicism that makes Job seem like a hothead. It has been a fiasco. Secretary of State Clinton has threatened “crippling sanctions,” but Russia and other countries are unlikely to participate and sanctions have never really worked.