President Barack Obama’s most telling act on the international stage may have come in a meeting in early 2012 in Seoul, South Korea, with Russia’s seat-warming president, Dmitry Medvedev.
Before the two got up to leave, President Obama asked -- in an exchange caught on an open mic -- that Moscow cut him some slack. “This is my last election,” Obama explained. “After my election I have more flexibility.” Medvedev promised to “transmit this information to Vladimir,” referring, of course, to the power behind the throne, Vladimir Putin.
When he received the message, Putin must have chortled at the heartbreaking naivete of it. Here was the leader of the free world pleading for more time to get along with his Russian friends on the basis of an utterly risible assumption of good will. Here was a believer in the policy of “reset” who still didn’t get that the reset was going nowhere. Here was weakness compounded by delusion.
Putin didn’t care about Obama’s flexibility so much as any opportunity to thwart the United States. Obama said that Syria President Bashar al-Assad had to go; Putin worked to make sure he stayed. Obama said that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden had to return to the United States; Putin granted him asylum. When Putin related to a group of Russian students that he had told Snowden to stop doing damage to the United States, the students did the only thing appropriate upon hearing such a patently insincere claim -- they laughed out loud.
Vladimir Putin surely isn’t the only one in the world who regards the president of the United States with barely disguised contempt. As the Syria crisis burns hotter, President Obama has never looked so feckless. He has perfected the art of speaking reproachfully and carrying little or no stick. The grand theory of his foreign policy coming into office, that more national self-abasement would win us greater international good will and respect, has done the opposite. Adversaries don’t fear us, and allies don’t trust us.
When Assad prepared to use chemical weapons last year, President Obama warned of a fearsome “red line,” with no intention of following up on it. When Assad called his bluff, the president announced he would provide small arms to the rebels in retaliation, but he hasn’t actually done it yet. Is it any wonder that Bashar al-Assad would, like Vladimir Putin, think he had taken the measure of the man? Last month, he killed hundreds in another chemical-weapons attack.
The sharply worded warning ignored by everyone has become the Obama administration’s characteristic rhetorical trope. It warned the military junta in Egypt not to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, which was taken with all the seriousness of its admonitions to Assad to step aside.
Meanwhile, Iran progresses toward a nuclear weapon, Iraq reverts to civil war, and al-Qaida gains in Yemen and Somalia. In an essay in Commentary magazine, analyst Elliott Abrams argues that the guiding principle of Obama foreign policy is, as he once put it, to end the old “habits” of American international activism and leadership. The new habit, evidently, will be tolerating irrelevance and humiliation.