A soft answer can sometimes turn away wrath, but not always, and presidents have to be wary of showing timidity and weakness in the face of a bully. This is the expensive lesson the tinhorns of the world are teaching Barack Obama. So far he is not an honors student.
Throwing Poland and the Czech Republic under that celebrated bus, a cramped space already brimming with old friends, pastors, mentors, tutors and even members of his own family who are no longer useful, was costly. It’s never easy to be a friend of America, and Mr. Obama is making it impossible to be one.
He got a humiliating reminder of reality this week when the Russians, to whom he had paid such humble obeisance, gave him a hard slap across the face, just to remind him who he is and who is meant to be in charge of the world. Mr. Obama expected to get something when he blew off Poland and the Czech Republic, which had agreed to host NATO missile sites at considerable cost and risk, being close neighbors of the Russians.
What he thought he got was an implicit understanding that Russia recognizes the danger of the Iranian nuclear bomb, that it would change the power equation in the Middle East. Russia would join the West in imposing sanctions tough enough to get the attention of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But not so fast. It’s not as if the Russians really meant it. Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister and an old KGB operative who is obviously still in charge of everything important in Moscow, warned “major powers” - diplomatic softspeak for “the United States” - against trying to intimidate Iran into behaving itself. He said talk of new sanctions against the Islamic republic are “premature.” This is diplomatic realspeak for “not now and not ever.”
“We need to look for a compromise,” Mr. Putin told reporters in Beijing, where he was learning to make the perfect chop suey. “If a compromise is not found, and the discussions end in fiasco, then we will see. And if now, before making any steps [toward holding talks] we start announcing sanctions, then we won’t be creating favorable conditions for talks to end positively. This is why it is premature to talk about this now.”
All this was while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Moscow, trying to find out just how much help the Russians intend to give to the West. Mrs. Clinton could not even see Mr. Putin, the real head man; there was a conflict of schedules and he had to depart for Beijing. This was a remarkable snub, treating the secretary of state as if she were merely the representative of the PTA, lobbying for more vegetables in the school lunchroom. Maybe there really was a conflict; maybe Mr. Putin had scheduled a haircut at the only hour she was available.
The Russians succeeded in putting Mr. Obama and the Americans in their place. Nikolai Patrushev, the chief of the Presidential Security Council, manufactured an occasion while Mrs. Clinton was in Moscow to warn that Moscow reserves the right to make “a pre-emptive nuclear strike” against both small and large enemies.
In an interview with Izvestia, the important Moscow daily, he said Russian officials are examining “a variety of possibilities for using nuclear force, depending on the situation and the intentions of the possible opponent.” In situations critical to national security, he said, “options including a preventative nuclear strike on the aggressor are not excluded.” Even regional or “local” wars will be included in the new strategy, expected to be official policy in December.
A willingness to use any or all weapons, if the time and place is right, is nothing new, of course. If the stakes are high enough everybody will use everything, and only fools object. The significance of these remarks, which were certainly calculated for effect while Mrs. Clinton was in town, is what they tell about how the Russians regard the toughness of Barack Obama, the noble peacenik with a prize to prove it, and whether there is any “there” there.
Mrs. Clinton and her acolytes at the State Department, ever eager to seek the softest way to say nothing, tried to put a nice face on her visit to Moscow. The United States, Russia and China are “closer than before” on their policies regarding Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, Mrs. Clinton told a radio interviewer. She seemed to be taking care not to say that actual positions are closer, just that everyone understands those positions: Russians tough, Americans soft.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.