A president has to be a resolute officer of his administration. If he isn’t, he fails. When everybody gets his number, the new reality makes everybody miserable. That goes double when other presidents, prime ministers and despots get it.
Barack Obama, resolute enough when he’s designing health care schemes, shows only irresolution abroad. Weakness and irresolution is the face he turns to the rest of the world, in hopes that if he hires a good speechwriter and bows deeply enough to whatever kings and potentates cross his path, that’s good enough.
But of course it isn’t, and Mr. Obama is challenged now at every turn by friend and foe of the United States who need to see on what meat the man feeds, and of what stuff his promises and assurances are made. The mullahs in Tehran, who can’t believe how easy it was to roll the president and his counterparts in Geneva, had no sooner signed the agreement to preserve the Iranian pursuit of the bomb at a bargain price than the mullahs began dreaming up new demands. If the mullahs could roll him once, they could roll him twice.
It’s not just the Iranians measuring the president twice before cutting him once. China has drawn an unusual “air-defense zone” in the East China Sea meant to test the resolve of Japan, South Korea and above all the United States, to see who if anyone will try to do anything about it. The first Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was dispatched to the area on a training mission, innocent enough but intended to show that Beijing is big enough to back up a threat. This is supposed to be a dispute between China and Japan over a few uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. It’s true that all real estate is about location, location, location, but this dispute is useful in other ways.
The United States — presumably at the instructions of Mr. Obama, but one never knows — dispatched two B-52 bombers, the terror of despots and troublemakers everywhere, to fly through the zone to see what would happen. Nothing did. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the United States has “no intention” of recognizing the “air-defense zone” by notifying the Chinese when they cross the coordinates, but the Chinese have no doubt noticed that Mr. Obama’s red lines eventually fade to green. The Chinese in Beijing read the newspapers.
Not far away, President Hamid Karzai is negotiating the terms of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and an agreement to train Afghanistan’s own army and to show the security forces how to keep what passes for peace in Islamic countries. Mr. Karzai desperately wants to forge such an agreement, but only on his terms, which change frequently. Susan E. Rice, the White House negotiator, told Mr. Karzai that if there’s no agreement soon, the United States would withdraw all its troops and trainers in 2014. Mr. Karzai was so intimidated that he added the new conditions, including a demand that all prisoners at Guantanamo be freed.
Neither was he impressed by colleagues in the Afghan government. One of them told The New York Times that Mr. Karzai was only contemptuous of the American threat, and joked about the lack of American resolve. He asked Mr. Karzai what he wanted as the final outcome of the negotiations. “It is favorable if they surrender to us,” he replied. “The United States has come, and it will not go, brother. It does not go. Therefore, ask your demands, and don’t worry.”
America’s allies look at this, ponder the implications, and worry. No one worries more than the Saudis, one of the most reliable — if often infuriating — American friends in the Middle East. Like the Israelis, the Saudis can’t understand Mr. Obama’s passionate romance with the Iranian regime. They think it spells trouble for everyone. “The Geneva negotiations,” declared the influential Saudi newspaper Al Riyadh, “are just a prelude to a new chapter of convergence between the United States and Iran.” A prominent Riyadh columnist likened Mr. Obama to Mother Teresa, “turning his right and left cheeks to his opponents in hopes of reconciliation.”
Mother Teresa was something of a saint to her followers, and she was an inspiration to a lot of others. Nobody elected Barack Obama to sainthood. He just has to get over it.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.