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.
This backs into the administration’s desire to press the “reset” button in its relations with Russia. The author of that expression, Vice President Biden, also declared that Russia, with its shrinking population, alcoholism, collapsed state, and uncompetitive industry, would have to bend to American will. Yet the reverse has occurred, as the U.S. has ignored Russian aggression against Georgia and scuttled its missile-defense system for Western Europe in favor of a less plausible system, despite Defense Secretary Gates’s manful claims to the contrary. The Germans and some other Europeans are too concerned about natural-gas imports from Russia to stand up to the Kremlin. (Biden also wanted to divide Iraq into three countries and fight the terrorists in the caves of Waziristan with sea-launched missiles. The famine of strategic sense in the administration has reached the point where the regime’s most slavish media apologists, Newsweek and the New York Times, are touting Biden as the wise, strong man of the government.)
The U.S. has to decide, after years of huffing and puffing, whether it is going to acquiesce in Iranian nuclear military capability. If not, it should mobilize an air-strike coalition and not leave it to Israel, once again, to do the world’s dirty work for it (much less follow the uncharacteristically demented advice of Zbigniew Brzezinski, almost the last Democrat who said anything sensible about foreign policy, to shoot down Israeli strike aircraft).
If it can live with a nuclear-armed Iran after all, the U.S. must build as leak-proof an anti-missile defense as possible for the benefit of all of its allies, if it expects to retain any allies. This is what is provisionally being done for Japan and South Korea opposite North Korea. This, and an agreed definition of an unacceptable nuclear power, binding all the existing nuclear powers, should be the core of the president’s arms-control policy, not a hell-for-leather pursuit of the unattainable, unverifiable, and undesirable goal of nuclear disarmament. The warmth of relations with Russia should depend entirely on the responsibility of that country’s conduct.
In foreign affairs as in other fields, it is not too late for this administration to be successful. I eagerly grasp the wind-blown straw of the evolution of the U.S. position on the Honduran controversy, from solidarity with Chávez, Castro, and Ortega, in favor of unconstitutional leftist activity, to respect for the results of a clearly democratic election.
The president’s move on Afghanistan is promising. The stage setting of West Point and the defensive, tentative tenor of his remarks were unfortunate. Secretary Gates had to do another Fifth Avenue poop-scoop tour of disquieted allies. It was the most ungalvanizing martial tocsin since Spanish premier Manuel Azaña greeted the outbreak of civil war in 1936 by announcing that he would take a nap.
Ironically, Mr. Obama, who voted against funding the Afghan war in 2007, will likely succeed there, because the Taliban and al-Qaeda can’t withstand 250,000 massively supported NATO and Pakistani troops in serious combat for more than a few months. He could then resuscitate his popularity as successful small-war presidents do, e.g., Polk (Mexico), McKinley (Cuba and the Philippines), and Bush Sr. (the Gulf War).
This would be the political equivalent of Sergeant York, the conscientious objector who won the Medal of Honor in 1918. Sonorous speeches are no substitute for strength and determination, but sometimes luck can be. Despite reversible vulnerabilities and serious problems, the U.S. is still the world’s most powerful country. It must now act like it, consistently, if it wishes to keep that status.