Throughout the last three years, President Obama has been nitpicked in the press for a variety of public gestures that in and of themselves seemed to have little lasting effect: having Mexico join Eric Holder’s Justice Department to sue to strike down a U.S. state’s immigration law; bowing to Saudi and Japanese royals; apologizing for, or at least contextualizing, past American acts while overseas; giving interviews in which he criticized his predecessor; offering mythopoetic speeches that offered pleasant but outright fiction to his hosts; branding his entire new foreign policy as “outreach” and “reset” as he sought to soothe Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, or Muslim Brotherhood leaders; sending subtle messages that an old ally like Britain, the Czech Republic, or Israel is now just one of many, while reaching out to old enemies like Iran, sending an ambassador to Syria, and trying to appease Putin. All that by now is old hat and relegated to the talk-show litanies. And if the showboating-Nobel-laureate policy has not made the world any safer or more secure since 2009 — so akin to the Carter reset years between ’77 and ’78 — it so far has not seemed to make things all that much worse. So far, that is.
But what appears to be a gesture in isolation often become a tessera in a larger mosaic, and after three years the picture is starting to emerge of a somewhat different United States. Whether the emerging image is a fair representation or not does not really matter because, after all, it is an image perceived by others that President Obama is ambiguous about America’s past and its future, that he seems to agree that others might justifiably have long-standing grievances against the United States, that his inherited friends are as problematic as his inherited enemies, that foreign animosity toward the United States during the Bush administration had a logical basis, that America’s wrong wars are better ended than won, that he reluctantly must expand the Bush antiterrorism protocols he once derided as so toxic, and that just as he derides the 1 percent at home as suspect, so too perhaps abroad he is equally suspicious of the small number of wealthy and prosperous nations who derive riches from the other 99 percent.
The result of all this, as in the fashion of 1979–80, is that many nations — Iran, North Korea, China, Pakistan, Russia — might conclude that there is now a good full year left for readjustment to the global security scene in ways that will not earn much reaction from the U.S. Certainly current American allies like Taiwan, Israel, South Korea, Japan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eastern Europe might have good reason to assume that the U.S. is scaling back, does not have its heart in old defense commitments made long ago during a different era, and does not wish to perpetuate a world order not of its own making.
The result, I think, may be that in this coming year we will see a new boldness among Islamic forces in North Africa; China will show the flag far nearer to Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea; some independent-minded former Soviet Republics will be forced to move closer to Russia; Turkey won’t worry too much whether it overflies Greek or Cypriot airspace — or worse; Iran will test a missile or do something stupider; North Korea may resume its now-and-then shelling of the south; and Lebanon and the West Bank will heat up again — all on the impression that either the U.S. doesn’t much care, does care but is too broke or weary to do much about it, or beneath its public warnings harbors some quiet sympathies for such “corrections” in a prior flawed global order.
Of course, after Carter’s mistakes, Russia eventually left Afghanistan and finally quit Central America; we got our hostages back and survived serial Islamic terrorism; and the Chinese left Vietnam. All that said, much of our problems for the next few decades originated during 1979 when an impression was left that proved hard to correct.