- - Monday, March 3, 2014

President Obama, like Jimmy Carter before him, is finally getting a late education in how the world works. It’s not how he wants it to be.

The world is a dangerous place, where history and greed trump good intentions. Words are cheap.

Red lines and vague warnings to bad actors mean little to men who scheme for power, strategic advantage and territory. Vladimir Putin, communist or not, is one tough Russian.

He wants to maximize his nation’s prestige, power and interests and appears to be doing well at it. Barack Obama and his feckless secretary of state were all that was standing in his way.

Mr. Putin, America’s foes in the Middle East, and the leaders in China know exactly what they want and think they can get it. Mr. Putin wants to keep his warm water port in the Crimea, and like Russian rulers of yore, wants subject nations on his periphery to protect Mother Russia from east and west.

China wants to dominate the region around her; she wants islands she claims the Japanese have no right to, and she wants Taiwan. Iran wants the bomb to give her the influence and reach she needs to dominate her neighbors and eliminate her enemies.

They have concluded they can get what they want. They have taken Mr. Obama’s measure and are persuaded that the leader of the free world has no idea of what he wants or how to deal with those eager to cross every red line.

Americans are war weary, have little stomach for the democratic adventurism that led to the nation-building wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but with real leadership they would understand the important role this country must play.

They have witnessed disasters in the past when presidents left the door ajar to aggressors. When Dean Acheson, President Truman’s secretary of state, suggested that America was not much interested in protecting South Korea, the result was a long and bitter war.

Leading from behind looks to adversaries and enemies like an invitation to take chances for a big payoff, as in Ukraine this week. Disaster inevitably follows.

Ronald Reagan believed in “peace through strength, knowing that if America was strong enough, evil and ambitious men would not be tempted to test American resolve.

Mr. Carter learned that hard lesson when it was almost too late. But he learned it. Mr. Obama works on a much steeper learning curve, but learn he will, too.

The American people and those who rely on us for their very existence must know that we are there for them. Dithering and weakness lead to war that could have been avoided.

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