Five years ago, the entire world stopped everything to listen to Barack Obama’s speeches.
It listened when he went to Cairo “to seek a new beginning” with the Muslim world. When he went to Copenhagen to warn that “we are running out of time” to slow climate change. And when he went to Oslo to explain that unilateral U.S. military action was sometimes “not only necessary, but morally justified.”
After eight years of the Bush Doctrine – and its horrendous toll on America’s psyche, solvency and global standing – the world was looking forward to an internationalist president who sought consensus and co-ordination. Mr. Obama promised a fresh U.S. foreign policy to make the world a safer, saner place.
But the world stopped listening closely to Mr. Obama once it discovered that his impeccably constructed and eloquently spoken speeches were rarely backed up by action. As the speeches grew more familiar, and Mr. Obama’s delivery more tired, it tuned out altogether.
Criticism at home grew louder, too. Even the experts who once held out hopes for Mr. Obama were floored by the President’s fecklessness. Last month, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, warned that U.S. foreign policy under Mr. Obama was “in troubling disarray.”
That’s why the U.S. President’s speech at the West Point, N.Y., military academy on Wednesday – billed by his aides as a “major” foreign-policy address, laying out the approach for the rest of his term – seemed more like a sad attempt by a diminished leader to rationalize his foreign-policy disappointments than a road map for the future.
“Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions” in Ukraine, Mr. Obama boasted. “This mobilization of world opinion and institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda, Russian troops on the border, and armed militias.”
If Vladimir Putin indeed blinked in recent days, it’s not likely because because the Russian President was worried about Mr. Obama. It’s because of Mr. Putin’s own miscalculations, thinking slavish support at home was all he needed. If any world leader made him think twice, it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Mr. Putin already measured Mr. Obama’s mettle last year. The U.S. President drew a “red line” on Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war. When it was crossed, Mr. Obama vowed a military strike. Then he backed off, seeking congressional approval to buy time. Mr. Putin spared him any more embarrassment by brokering a deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons.
Two of Mr. Obama’s former defence secretaries publicly criticized his handling of that crisis. Robert Gates warned that a likely “no” from Congress would weaken the United States “in the eyes of our allies, as well as our adversaries.” Leon Panetta noted that Iran was watching “and what they’re seeing is an element of weakness.”
As criticism of the President’s tough talk but feeble action mounted following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he shot back: “You hit singles, you hit doubles. Every once in while, we may be able to hit a home run.”
Americans aren’t used to hearing their president aim so low.
Mr. Obama has had one home run – authorizing the perilous Navy SEAL mission to kill Osama Bin Laden. But that was uncharacteristically decisive on his part. If there is such a thing as an Obama Doctrine, it is based on risk aversion, error avoidance and overdeliberation.
That’s better than ideology, but still not what the world needs from the United States.
Mr. Obama has another chance at a home run – a deal with Iran on its nuclear program. But with a July deadline, it remains a long shot. And he has yet to prove he’s not being played by crafty Iranian clerics.
American power is not what it was. The country is psychologically and financially tapped out by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Isolationist sentiment is soaring at home. A rising China is challenging America’s very notion of itself, and now Mr. Putin may want to revive the Cold War.
But American power is about more than military intervention. It is about harnessing unrivalled resources to shape world events, resolve conflicts and foster global prosperity. As Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama’s most likely successor, repeats in her forthcoming memoir: “America remains the indispensable nation.”
When the leader of the free world refuses to use his powers of persuasion – or worse, has none – the whole planet is worse off. Another speech won’t change that.