Barack Obama’s presidency was supposed to restore America’s good name in the world, repairing collateral damage to the nation’s international reputation wrought by George W. Bush’s go-it-alone military misadventures.
But early this month, the estimable British newsweekly the Economist published a cover story reminding us that the world is Goldilocks fussy when it comes to the way America wields its (super) power.
“What would America fight for?” the magazine plaintively inquired, describing “a nagging doubt ... eating away at the world order.”
Nagging is the word for it. It seems America’s friends from Tokyo to Brussels fret these days over whether the U.S. under Obama retains the backbone to wage war should it become necessary. Acknowledging a mood shift, the Economist explained that “Obama began his presidency with the world wondering how to tame America.” But now “he and his country need to realize that the question has changed.”
This helpful update on the world’s expectations came in response to Obama’s testy reply a few weeks back (“Why is everybody so eager to use military force?”) when asked during an Asian trip about perceptions of American weakness. There’s certainly a sense in which Noble Peace Prize Laureate Obama — who once basked so smugly in foreigners’ swooning admiration — deserves this fickle cooling of overseas ardor. But there’s another sense in which the president’s domestic critics should share his irritation over it.
Bush’s cowboy aggressiveness, whatever its blunders and excesses, came in response to the 9/11 attacks and to real and perceived direct threats to Americans and U.S. interests. That kind of toughness, the world yearned to “tame.” But now, with Russia’s Vladimir Putin slobbering ravenously on Europe’s eastern edge, with China rising menacingly in Asia, with Iran’s nuclear ambitions far from abandoned — now Obama’s cerebral caution is leaving “the world” longing for a more snarling protector.
Of course, Obama also faces plenty of criticism at home — and not all of it from Republicans — that his halting, unsteady handling of foreign and security affairs has signaled indecision to friend and foe alike.
But let’s keep our heads. If Americans weren’t so fixated on our partisan and ideological civil wars, it would be plainer to us that Obama’s foreign and military policy has differed from Bush’s more in rhetoric than in basic substance. He wound down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan essentially on Bush’s timetables, after “surging” in Afghanistan as Bush had done in Iraq. He has continued and intensified the drone war against terrorists (without letting undue respect for national boundaries protect them) while only expanding a vast and creepy surveillance regime.
Is gun-shy “weakness” really what America has communicated to the world in the Bush-Obama era — especially to the world’s thugs? Saddam Hussein doubted American resolve. His regime is history and he is dead. America may have “led from behind” in Libya, but that was enough. Ghadhafi is dead, too. Osama bin Laden took American special forces, under both Bush and Obama, on a merry chase. But now he sleeps with the fishes.
Many thousands of terrorists and Taliban fighters have likewise found no place to hide, even on the far side of the world, from America’s wrath.
The worth and justifiability of every chapter in this violent saga can be questioned, above all because of the tragic loss of life involved — American and otherwise. But in its wake, “what would America fight for?” cannot be a serious question.
It’s true of course that in all this America has been battling ragtag military midgets. Armed confrontation against Russia or China or even Iran would put the nation to a horribly, inconceivably more difficult test.
But that’s just the point. Putin may or may not think Obama is weak, but surely he feels safe moving against Ukraine because he thinks Obama isn’t crazy — just as he thought the untamed Bush wasn’t crazy when he serenely sent Russian troops into Georgia in 2008. He sees controlling events in Russia’s immediate surroundings as a vital interest, and knows that at some unspoken level American strategists understand this.
China, too — and to a lesser degree Iran — will pursue critical interests knowing that decisions to “fight” at the major power level are monstrously difficult and ultimately driven more by necessity than by the weakness or toughness of individual leaders. They may even understand that Obama won’t be president forever.
Ever since World War II, America has longed to assert detailed control over events all around the world — a longing often disappointed. Today, the nation is obligated to militarily defend scores of allies through mutual defense treaties. That is the minimum bottom line of “what America will fight for,” and frankly, it’s plenty.
Yes, Obama needs to make it plain that America will fulfill those obligations, whatever the cost. Yes, he needs to better protect defense budgets. Yes, he needs to stop drawing “red lines,” as he did in Syria, that he is not prepared to enforce. And yes, he even needs to stop whining about the burdens of world leadership.
But if he’s slowly abandoning hope of ever satisfying world opinion — well, that’s progress.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.