Remember the medieval fable about the mice that wanted their dangerous enemy, the cat, belled, but each preferred not to be the one to attempt the dangerous deed? Likewise, the world’s bad actors have long wanted America belled, but, like the mice, so far they have not been stupid or daring enough to test America’s teeth and claws — that is, until now.
In 2008 Barack Obama campaigned on the general principle that the entire Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols were either superfluous or illegal. That opportunistic posturing resonated with a world audience eager for confessions of American wrongdoing. It probably helped to undermine U.S. influence abroad.
But no matter, all was forgotten at home the following year, when President Obama embraced or indeed expanded all the protocols he had once demagogued. Soon, as Predator-in-Chief, he increased the drone-assassination tally by a factor of ten. Other nations watched this about-face and took note of such opportunism for future reference.
“Reset” with Russia was predicated on the notion that George Bush, not the Russian autocracy, was responsible for the deterioration in Russian-American relations. Under reset, Barack Obama was more critical of his predecessor than he was of Vladimir Putin. The Russians were not naïve, and today they assume that the United States surely should blame itself, not Russia, when the two nations are at odds. If anything, Russia has become more autocratic at home and more bellicose abroad.
As a candidate, Obama ridiculed the Bush commitment to missile defense — only, as president, to extend such a capability to allies like Turkey and Japan that felt threatened by neighbors. In the latest crisis with North Korea, Obama has beefed up anti-missile defenses on our own West Coast. That erratic message was also not lost on world observers. The Hagel appointment and the sequester confirmed the impression that while Obama relies on the U.S. military, it is a military that he himself would never have created or funded and that he sees as a cultural laboratory where social change — such as overt gay service and women in combat — can be fast-tracked without the messiness of dealing with Congress, rather than as a force to ensure deterrence.
From sizing up Bashar Assad to deposing Saddam Hussein (he was for it before he was against it), the one constant with the new secretary of state, John Kerry, is less that he is often wrong than that he is predictably zealous in promoting the shifting course of what is perceived to be felt by 51 percent of Americans on any given day. Kerry, as a rich, Ivy League, liberal Massachusetts grandee, is an expert in deciphering an undiscovered human element, a “We can do business with him” good side — unapparent to less sophisticated others — in most of the world’s monsters.
It would not have been costly to keep a small garrison in Iraq to prod the Maliki government to stay reasonable and Iran to stay out of Iraqi airspace, and there was no need to announce timetables of withdrawal from Afghanistan even as we surged troops. But Obama realized that Americans were war weary, and he wanted to be done with both of the so-called Bush wars. Ending the conflicts, rather than ensuring that they ended well, was Obama’s concern, a fact of interest to those in the Middle East. He was certainly no Harry Truman, who told Americans exhausted by World War II that they had another existential struggle on the horizon — and with their erstwhile wartime partner, Stalin’s Soviet Union, every bit as evil and dangerous as Hitler’s Germany.
We belatedly embraced the Arab Spring just as it was turning to winter. Mohamed Morsi understands that he can be both a recipient of American aid and a critic of America, and he believes that while U.S.-Israeli ties are ostensibly not changed, deep down Obama might like them to be. The more radical Egypt becomes, the more President Morsi is certain that Obama agrees that it is more authentically Egyptian. Morsi, like others in the Middle East, understands that “lead from behind,” Benghazi, serial deadlines for Iran, and lectures about intervening and not intervening in Syria all add up to speaking loudly and carrying a tiny stick — or simply to incoherence. Warning America is the new world pastime: North Korea warns that it might nuke the West Coast; Hamas warns the president not to visit the Temple Mount; China warns us to keep out of its dispute with Japan.
Any one of these developments in and of itself would hardly be noticed; together, they suggest a pattern of assuming that America thinks it can keep order in the postwar global order by occasional lectures and sermons, as if it were the U.N. with a few aircraft carriers.
North Korea’s usual lunacy seems lately a little too lunatic. Maybe it is the new leadership in Seoul or Pyongyang, or a sense in the North that the U.S. no longer has the heart to fight for South Korea, or to defend Japan or Taiwan against an ascendant nuclear China. In any case, when the Obama administration talked grandly of downsizing its strategic nuclear arsenal, many in Asia wondered whether they were still safely under the vast American nuclear umbrella. They had apparently suffered under the delusion that America had so many nukes mainly because it had so many allies that had the capability to go nuclear, but did not do so because America assured them that there was no need to. Obama talks of a pivot to Asia, but it is more like a divot, a small sort of embarrassing missed swing that has little to do with much of anything
Polls show that the American public overwhelmingly considers Canada and the U.K to be America’s closest allies. But while we give billions of dollars to the Pakistanis and the Palestinians, whom, Gallup also tells us, Americans like least of all the peoples of the world, we have shunned the Canadians on the Keystone Pipeline and are officially neutral on the “Malvinas” (or, in Obamaspeak, “Maldives”) — a.k.a. the Falklands. I think the message is that enemies of the U.S. are now neutrals — but so are friends.
A bow here, a “What does Benghazi matter?” there (remember the boasts about bringing the perpetrators to justice?), the Muslim world as catalyst for Western culture, a musing out loud that America is about as exceptional as Greece, half-apologies about genocide among those who were past masters at it, lectures to Israel, laurels to Turkey — all this day-by-day Oz-like fantasy is absolutely trivial. But is it so cumulatively after four years?
North Korea, Iran, Hezbollah, and China have translated the incoherent and anecdotal into a predictable pattern of behavior, applicable to the fundamental, not just the irrelevant. And the conclusion results in something like this: While there is some chance that the U.S. may still in the old way rise to face regional crises, there is now a real likelihood, the first since the annus mirabilis of 1980, that it may not.
In short, we are living in dangerous times not seen since Jimmy Carter’s disastrous last year in office, when a moralist kindred to Obama was widely praised for his ecumenical statesmanship — and when the Russians, the Chinese, and the Islamists began invading their neighbors and killing people.
Opportunists abroad — rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly — believe that if there was ever a time to readjust the regional landscape without too much risk, that time is coming, as the once-lean feline that used to prowl the yard outside has become a bloated pussycat purring on the kitchen mat.
The more unhinged on the world scene may move first to try to bell the American cat, but even if they are only partially successful, the more rational will be emboldened to follow suit — convinced that the unhinged were not so unhinged after all.