Photo: Elizabeth Cromwell
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government announced a West Bank housing project during Vice President Joseph Biden’s recent visit—perhaps accidentally, perhaps not—the Obama administration immediately condemned it, privately and publicly. Netanyahu tried to make amends, prompting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to boast publicly that openly slamming a close American ally had produced positive results, helping to restart Middle East negotiations after 14 months of administration failure in Middle East.
Days later, on the very visit to Moscow where Secretary Clinton crowed about the beneficial effects of kicking friends in their public parts, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin revealed his reaction. Putin himself (no accident there) announced, right in the middle of a faltering U.S.-led effort to sanction Iran for its nuclear-weapons program, that Moscow would assist Iran in fueling the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear reactor. Not only did Clinton not assault Putin publicly, she accepted firing up Bushehr as within Iran’s “rights,” notwithstanding that, in due course, reprocessed plutonium from Bushehr’s spent fuel will provide Iran with fissile material for nuclear weapons.
Our global position will rapidly deteriorate as friends distance themselves for their own self-protection and adversaries grow more adventuresome.
What should Americans make of this behavior: When blindsided by an ally, the Obama administration reacts with fury, but when slapped by a “peer competitor” (to put it diplomatically), Obama’s team smiles benignly?
Even more importantly, what do our foreign friends and adversaries think of this juxtaposition? How does the rest of the world read President Obama, and what do their assessments imply for U.S. foreign policy in the coming, and potentially very turbulent, years?
The obvious point, no less telling for being obvious, is that the president has a peculiar set of priorities for dealing with friends and adversaries. Obama, however, clearly believes that such conduct, strange as it is to Americans, shows to the world his administration’s even-handedness, which will in turn strengthen his subsequent diplomatic leverage in a range of international crises.
But Obama is flatly wrong. Publicly criticizing allies and stroking opponents will produce precisely the opposite result: appalling the former and encouraging the latter. If Obama persists, our global position will rapidly deteriorate as friends distance themselves for their own self-protection and adversaries grow more adventuresome. If this and other recent behavior is what Obama and Clinton mean by “smart power,” we can readily conclude that they don’t understand either word in their slogan.
As Obama passed the one-year mark in office, the U.S. media widely asked whether America was more secure or less than at his inauguration. Analysts disagreed on the answer, not surprisingly, but few challenged the question’s basic premise, namely that there might not be enough to measure in such a relatively brief period. The more important question is forward looking; it asks what the outcome of Obama’s new policy directions and the international assessment and reaction to them will be three years from now. The real question is whether we will be more or less secure at the end of Obama’s term, and the answer is that we should be very worried now about our national-security prospects then.
Neither friends nor adversaries automatically recalibrate their strategies and tactics when a new president takes office. Instead, foreigners watch carefully for the priorities and directions of the new leader, reading speeches, media reports, tea leaves and anything else handy to try to understand what will remain the same and what will change in U.S. policy. We should never underestimate bureaucratic inertia in other governments, not just our own. Nor should we ignore the profound belief many foreigners have (whether governments, or international terrorists like Osama bin Laden) that America’s leaders come and go, but its basic interests remain unchanged. (Actually, Americans shouldn’t ignore that point either.)
This process of observation, assessment, and adjustment obviously takes time, and only after foreigners make their new judgments will they substantially alter their policies in response. So, in the great game of international affairs, it is almost always ponderous for the battleship-size behemoth of U.S. national-security policy to change direction, followed by course corrections by the other national dreadnoughts. It is only as these complementary maneuvers unfold and policies shift that we can give more-accurate answers whether the United States is more or less secure.
Seen in this light, the recent incidents with Israel and Russia are extremely disquieting. Whether Israel acted intentionally or accidentally, it put itself in a vulnerable position, and Obama exploited that difficulty. NATO and other U.S. treaty allies will take due note, as will Palestinian radicals and Islamic extremists, to America’s detriment. Russia, by contrast, thumbed its nose at Washington and got away with it. North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others will likewise take due note, also to our detriment. Two more strikes, among many, for Team Obama
The United States is indeed less secure one year into the Obama administration, but the risks only begin there. The answer to the media’s unasked question is that three more years of Obama means, in all likelihood, we will be even less secure than now, perhaps menacingly so. Fortunately, Americans will have an election in 2012 to try to make a course correction.
John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington, D.C.
This article first appeared in the Daily Beast.