Few commentators have expressed less confidence in the ability of the Obama administration to rebound than I have, but the five weeks since the shellacking have been the most successful this president has had. The clear message of the WikiLeaks fiasco is that American diplomats and foreign-policy planners recognize that China is engaged in an insidious and unsubtle process of asserting itself in as disagreeable a manner as possible, without being dangerously belligerent; that Russia is a Mafia state run by a thug; and that the engagement policy with America’s more vocal critics in the Muslim, African, and Latin American theaters has not accomplished anything useful.
The administration came into office with the most astoundingly over-simplified views of economic and national-security and energy problems, and a painful adjustment was inevitable. The most inexperienced incoming president since Chester A. Arthur apparently believed that the ideological and strategic differences that the United States had had with many countries would dissolve with a few speeches and an emphasis on the fact that, for the first time, the White House did not have a white man as its chief tenant. Only a small part of inter-state relations is public relations; it is almost all national interests, and pressing the reset button won’t change history and geography, any more than, to use other notorious brainwaves from Vice President Biden, Iraq’s problems could be resolved by dividing it into three countries or the Taliban defeated on the ground with sea-launched cruise missiles.
Absurdities remain, but they are not Mr. Obama’s fault. It is amusing that, as a discontented homosexual in the armed forces explains that he released hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks because he was out of sorts at his treatment in the army, Sen. Carl Levin is riveting the attention of lawmakers debating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the armed forces by explaining that a gay person can aim a gun as accurately as anyone else. There is little now of the mindless prattle about a nuclear-free world, and one self-propelling out of the habit of carbon use for energy needs, but there are still echoes.
Talks are resumed with Iran over nuclear proliferation, but refused with North Korea, and the crossroads on the spread of nuclear weapons is at hand. WikiLeaks confirms that sanctions are not nearly tight enough to deter Iran from arming itself with a nuclear offensive capability, and that the Arab leaders, especially the kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and the leaders of the United Arab Emirates, are urging military action on the U.S. to prevent it from happening. The fact that the American officials seem to have replied noncommittally at least preserves the kernel of hope that the administration will act before it is too late. It emerges that the U.S. believes that China is ultimately responsible, more than Pakistan or Russia, for Iran’s making much of the progress it has toward a nuclear military capability.
If Iran is allowed to achieve this status, the U.S. will have very little credibility as a superpower, and the genie of proliferation will be out of the bottle. Providing anti-missile defenses to friendly countries is commendable, but the best defense, as the Cold War demonstrated, is a massive retaliatory capability, and the combination of Iranian nuclear ambitions and American resolution will put an end to the self-serving hypocrisy of the world’s arms-control regime, where the nuclear club winks at new members that it is confident will behave responsibly, and uses aerated wafflings about arms control as a placebo to silence or distract everyone else. If Iran obtains nuclear weapons, so will dozens of other countries. The almost complete absence, in what has been released to date, of any of Obama’s sophomoric nonsense about disarmament is an unalloyed plus point.
The WikiLeaks publisher, Julian Assange, should not be charged with treason and espionage, as Sen. Joe Lieberman requests. He is an Australian who knowingly published material he knew to have been wrongfully handed over, which may be complicity in theft, but is probably not extraditable. Private Manning, who apparently stole the e-mails and cables, obviously faces military discipline, but may have mitigating psychiatric problems. Nothing will be gained by misplaced overreaction and a blundering Pentagon Papers–style prosecution, especially as the effect is general reassurance. The relative benignity of the WikiLeaks revelations, though the episode has the world wondering how a bitchy gay private can access and distribute classified documents in such herniating quantities, has confirmed to the world that the Obama administration is on the same planet as the rest of us.
Hillary Clinton recognizes that Saudi Arabia is bankrolling Islamist extremism, and she and the president she serves are aware that North Korea is a puppet state of China. Despite his salutary electoral comeuppance, Mr. Obama appears as a serious and sober head of the American state and government. And in these five weeks, sensible gestures and initiatives have poured out of this administration with unprecedented ease and volume. The representative of the same president who a year ago was unable to gain an interview at the Copenhagen Global Warming Conference with the prime minister of China, and advocated the $100 billion annual fund of Danegeld to quell the indignation of under-developed countries at the damage done to the world by economic development in advanced countries, is sitting quietly at the successor conference in Cancun and is saying nothing about national self-enforced carbon-emission caps. The United Kingdom, in one of the more ludicrous heirlooms of the Blair era, has the honor of being the only country in the world claiming to impose on itself the duty of observing such a limit, to show “moral leadership.” The other economically advanced countries have gone back to seeing their prosperity and sophistication as a positive achievement; the developing countries, who are the chief imposers of large carbon footprints, see the green movement as a neo-colonialist attempt at perpetuating backwardness; and not even Japan is prepared to act on the hair-shirted cap-and-trade-and-compensate regime devised at Kyoto in 1997 by the credulous eco-alarmists.
In the post-shellacking miracle of sensible government, the president has moved to satisfy legitimate concerns, expressed by Sen. Jon Kyl and others, about the New START arms-reduction agreement with Russia; has agreed on a transitory compromise with the Republican leaders in the Congress on extending most of the Bush tax cuts for two years, ending a degrading and chaotic game of chicken; has received and spoken positively about the report of the Bowles-Simpson debt commission, which could be the long-awaited beginning of a serious response to this horrible problem; has spoken unambiguously to the Chinese leadership about reining in the mad regime in the hermit rogue state of North Korea; and has indicated a willingness to sell F-22s, the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft, to Japan, which should never have been denied in the first place.
It is conceivable that the administration will follow up purposefully in all of these areas, including preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, and taking serious measures to reduce oil imports, in which case it will be the most remarkable resuscitation of a U.S. presidency since Generals Sherman, Grant, and Sheridan secured in the field the reelection of Abraham Lincoln in 1864. In a week when Frank Rich writes in the ineffable New York Times that Mr. Obama must shake the Stockholm Syndrome and end his enamored pixilation with the conservative Republicans who, he claims, have captured and brainwashed him, Americans, and foreigners who wish them well, can chin themselves on the hope for a return of sane government, after a bipartisan absence of many years. The first trace of a spirit of renascence is in the air, and it is bracing.