Will Obama’s administration end up as a remake of Jimmy Carter’s? Carter started out with his own take on the “audacity of hope”: let’s lose our “inordinate fear of communism.” Toward the end of his term—the Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan—he recanted. “That action had made a more dramatic change” in his view of their true goals “than anything they have done in the previous time I have been in office.”
Two hundred and fifty days into his first term, it is now reasonably clear that Mr. Obama is heading in the same direction—if he continues to walk the road paved with good intentions. The man who knows better than most how to calculate and corral power at home, who beat the mighty Hillary machine and snipped away John McCain, does not seem to appreciate the game nations play. In that game, nice guys don’t win.
Take the most recent no-no. We could see it coming since the spring. Last week, Obama finally gave away the anti-Iran missile shield, to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic, for nothing. No wonder the Russians are cheering, as any rival of the United States would. A freebie is the loveliest gift in international politics.
The threat from Iran, Obama said, is still far, far away. And so is our capacity to counter it. So you wonder why the U.S. installed a missile shield in Fort Greely, Alaska, years ago to offset Russia’s offensive potential that is far more deadly than Iran’s will ever be. To scare away the bears, perhaps? And you then wonder why Obama wants to put such a porous shield out to sea, into the Mediterranean, for the missiles and radars are pretty much the same ones the Poles and the Czechs were supposed to host.
The answer is simple: The Russians don’t like it. Mind you, not because the U.S. missiles would have targeted their nuclear hardware. Nor were the Russians truly frightened, as their generals have been freely conceding over the years. The real reason comes straight out of International Politics 101. Eastern Europe is their turf and off-limits for the U.S. Add to this the oldest game in Russian-Soviet policy, which is to gain a veto over Western strategic choices. The United States denied them that veto for 40 years.
The U.S. deployed tactical nuclear weapons in Europe in the early 1950s, brought a rearmed West Germany into NATO in 1955, fielded Pershing and cruise missiles in Western Europe in the early 1980s, and brought former Soviet satrapies into the alliance during the 1990s, all against the fierce opposition of the Soviets and Russians. Every American president since Truman has defied Moscow’s attempt to dictate Western security choices. Obama just granted the Russians that veto power. Let’s hear a loud spasiba from Moscow, for we won’t hear much else.
Of course, the expectation is that the Russians will finally come around and play ball on Iran, that is, agree to severe sanctions, including the denial of a sophisticated air defense. “We don’t do (real) sanctions” has been Moscow’s mantra. Last week, President Medvedev did a bit of tantalizing when he said: “Sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases sanctions are inevitable” Nice but noncommittal. Why would the Russians reciprocate? First, they just got something for free. Second, Putin’s game is not cricket but rugby. In that contest, you collect allies against No. 1; you don’t play Friday to Obama’s Robinson Crusoe. Hence, Moscow has diluted every proposal for sanctions that the U.S. has ever tabled. Count on some motion but not on movement.
Yet the missile farce is but a tile in the mosaic. Call it “politics as psychiatry.” You see, Dr. Obama reasons, so many clashes among cultures and nations are kind of psychosomatic, not physical. They reflect misunderstanding and resentment. Let’s try the talking cure, let’s soothe the patient, and he will come around to a constructive view of reality.
The first blueprint of Diplobamacy was the president’s speech in Cairo. He reached out to the Muslim world—good. He got a nice round of applause—gratifying. He put some distance between the United States and Israel—clever if you want to shine as “honest broker.” But in the coinage of influence and power, he got nada.
And why would he? Has his earnest attempt at sowing goodwill nudged the Arab-Sunni powers into serious coalition-building against Iran? No. If you like fence-sitting you don’t jump into American arms for a dose of flattery and kindness. Has Obama budged the Palestinians? No, they pocketed the gift and asked for more. “You showed us the money,” they responded in so many words, “now pay up by putting the squeeze on the Israelis.” Has it softened Jerusalem? Ask the wildcatting settlers in their illegal outposts. Bibi Netanyahu is worried about push coming to shove, and hence he has dug in.
Mr. Ahmadinejad will graciously negotiate now that the U.S. is coming to the table. But listen to him. He will not talk about the nuclear program, which is a nonnegotiable “right.” But he will chat about never-never land: about a world free of nuclear weapons. And while we are at it, Mr. Obama, why don’t we start by making Israel nuclear-free? Obama’s “talking cure” is delivering a wondrous gift to Tehran: Ahmadinejad now has U.S. presidential permission to play for time, which he has done since 2003, when the Europeans launched their hapless quest for denuclearization-on-the-cheap.
Such regimes are not crazy, though it behooves them to act as if they were. This is the “rationality of irrationality,” whereby the “patient” intimidates the would-be therapist with the threat of losing control. “Push me, and I’ll do something really crazy” is the message. Such regimes cooperate a lot more enthusiastically if the fist of power lurks beneath the silky glove of diplomacy.
Yet power is what Mr. Obama does not want to show, let alone employ–except in Afghanistan. Make that maybe. Or maybe not, as the Taliban, in their increasing aggressiveness, have begun to calculate. Others around the world must be changing their calculi as well. For instance, the Poles and Czechs, solid allies of the U.S., are now reconsidering the price of loyalty. They and others are wondering about a president who seems to treat adversaries better than friends. And who seems to act as if silver-tongued oratory can crack real conflicts.
It took Jimmy Carter until Christmas 1979, when the Soviets rolled into Afghanistan, to figure out that goodwill is not good enough. Let’s hope Mr. Obama learns faster how to shift from “good” to “will.” A reset, no matter how often, doesn’t change the reality inside a computer. The operating system remains the same.