President Obama, like most American presidents, is lucky that the public pays little attention to foreign policy and rarely casts its votes on the basis of presidential foreign-policy performance. It required something as dramatic as Iran’s November 1979 seizure of our diplomats as hostages, followed the next month by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to turn Jimmy Carter’s foreign-policy mess into a major negative issue for him in his failed 1980 re-election bid.
A political danger for presidents is that precisely because the public pays little attention to foreign policy until an explosion (usually metaphoric) occurs, a White House does not get public pressure to improve the situation as it does with, say, a failing domestic economy. As the economy gets worse and worse, the public complains more and more, and a White House is on political alert to try to do something about it, usually. However, the political danger of a foreign-policy failure tends just to fall out of the politically clear blue sky on an inattentive White House.
But the palpable, increasingly manifest weakening of the American position - from Russia to China/Taiwan to Turkey to Saudi Arabia to the Middle East peace process to Pakistan and Afghanistan to Mexico and Latin America - needs only a spark to reveal to the American public that in the past three years, we have experienced the most sustained weakening of our international interests, values and positions since the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Consider Russia. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced that he would step aside to permit Vladimir Putin to run essentially unopposed for president next year. That means Mr. Putin is likely to be president of Russia for 12 more years because, constitutionally, he can now serve two more consecutive six-year terms.
Unfortunately, President Obama had placed a huge strategic bet that Mr. Putin was not coming back. CNN reported on July 6, 2009: “In an interview with the Associated Press late last week, Obama seemed to be trying to work through the sticking points by driving a bit of a wedge between Medvedev and Putin. ‘The old Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russia relations is outdated and that it’s time to move forward in a different direction,’ said Obama. ‘I think Medvedev understands that. I think Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.’ “
It doesn’t take much to imagine where Mr. Putin, the former KGB operative, will place one of those booted feet when he gets back in office. That foot placement will be felt hard in Washington.
As Foreign Affairs magazine described it a few days ago, “Mr. Putin’s return is likely to complicate Russia’s thawing relations with the West, particularly the U.S.-Russia ‘reset’ begun in 2009. … ‘If Putin returns then I guess we will need another reset,’ joked a former high-ranking Kremlin official earlier this month. The White House said on Saturday that it would keep making progress in the reset regardless of who the next Russian president was.”
It’s not just that the president has given away a lot to gain Mr. Medvedev’s approval - now of no value to us - by: 1) reneging on our anti-missile defensive commitment to our friends Poland and the Czech Republic and 2) publicly attacking the corruption of Mr. Putin’s associates in order to try making Mr. Medvedev look stronger to his fellow Russians. It’s hard enough for an American president to dabble in American politics, let alone Russian domestic politics. Most shrewd American presidents resist the temptation that Mr. Obama could not.
But at a far more strategic level, by personally insulting Mr. Putin and a large part of the Russian intelligentsia, the White House has undercut our effort to contain China by triangulating with Russia in the same way that President Nixon contained Soviet Russia by triangulating with Mao’s China in the 1970s.
As Dimitri K. Simes, a leading analyst on Russia and president of the Center for the National Interest, put it recently, “The United States must have better relations with Russia than Russia has with China.” Oops. Mr. Obama’s personally implemented, failed Medvedev-centric Russian policy has turned Mr. Putin - a George W. Bush friend - into a personal enemy and a lost strategic asset. Only a new American president can start repairing that vital Russian link in our China-containment policy.
But the danger of American weakness with China, made even more difficult without Russia’s strong East Asia voice supporting us, was brought home painfully last week when it was announced that we will comply with China’s demands and not supply our ally Taiwan with new, advanced F-16s.
Even the neo-liberal London Economist accused the Obama administration of practicing “appeasement” with China: “Appeasement would also probably increase China’s appetite for regional domination. … To Chinese military planners, Taiwan is a potential base from which to push out into the Pacific. … Strong American backing for Taiwan has served the region well so far. … To abandon Taiwan now would bring out the worst in China, and lead the region’s democracies to worry that America might be willing to let them swing, too. That is why, as long as China insists on the right to use force in Taiwan, America should continue to support the island.”
When the president’s foreign policy is seen as conspicuously and dangerously weak by even liberal European opinion, Mr. Obama runs the risk that world liberal journalistic opinion may provide critical - and believable - public support for what surely will be a major Republican campaign charge in next year’s presidential race.
Tony Blankley is the author of “American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century” (Regnery, 2009) and vice president of the Edelman public relations firm in Washington.