Well, we saw it coming. But wait, that’s getting it backwards. We ought to have seen it coming. And we didn’t — “we” as a collective: we, the American people acting in our sovereign capacity as voters.
Why was it not plain to us in 2008, and yes, again in 2012, that Barack Obama was an unlikely choice for Leader of the Free World, not to mention head policy director of the World’s Most Dynamic Economy?
It was not plain to us because we failed to look. That is, I think, the right answer. It is certainly the answer to the conundrum concerning how we got into our current foreign policy mess with the Russians — whom we bested only 25 years ago — and what happens next. I did not say “how we get out of” said conundrum. I think we don’t. The Russians, of all washed-up imperial powers, have us by the nose and mean to inconvenience us.
They can do so because, fundamentally, our national leader doesn’t understand his duties as such. And because Vladimir V. Putin knows it. Putin has taken his measure of the man; he knows who the real tough guy is.
Barack Obama seems bent on demonstrating that he fails to grasp the basic considerations involved in leading the world’s only superpower. It is not a matter of dovishness or hawkishness. It is a matter of understanding — or in Obama’s case, failing to understand — that speeches and grand statements of principle never suffice for policy in the real world. What suffices is power and the willingness to use it — or not to use it, depending on the occasion.
Obama’s disregard for the obligations of power are the cause of his embarrassment — and ours — before the world as the Russians go at him like the bespectacled sixth-grader on the inner-city playground, in his brand-new pair of Adidas.
It is not that Obama is a foreign policy dimwit. It is that he is a naif — the wrong man for the job he holds, a maker of speeches rather than, before anything else, a reader of history. A reader of history (Churchill was such, and a writer of it, as well) would understand the terrifying obligations of power, knowing first of all that into power vacuums flow the animated spirits of others; knowing, moreover, that to wish particular things — even to hope them in the nicest way possible — is not to get them. Getting them can require threats open or hidden; it can certainly require talk — Obama’s favorite instrument for advancing a cause. It can and does require knowing what it is you want to happen, then working every instrument — including military and economic power — to that end.
Obama entered the White House determined to put power in the closet for most purposes. The new president would talk; he would exhort. That would do it, surely! People would know how reasonable he was, including, presumably, people with goals and interests different from our own. The Nobel Peace Prize came his way before he had done ought but brood on his mission. That sick, the world was, of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When crises arose inevitably, in Iran or Libya or Syria, he made clucking sounds: failing to convey that the United States had major interests in particular outcomes. The “red line” in Syria, which he adroitly scuffed away with his shoe, likely became Putin’s cue for launching policies of national rejuvenation, culminating in the seizure of the Crimea.
No American suggests that we send troops to the Crimea, as did the British and French under different circumstances, a century and a half ago. That matters might never have come to this pass had Putin actually respected and to some extent feared Obama is the considerable point. Matters came to this pass because Putin judged his American counterpart to be all talk and no do. In which he was certainly correct. The president who promised his own people they could keep their doctors was unlikely to promise the Ukrainians they could keep their country.
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