March 12, 2014 | The New York Times

The World Senses Our Wariness of Power

With this administration, it’s always tricky, if not impossible, to separate intention from naiveté, and idealism from “realism.” Barack Obama came into office mistrusting American hegemony, which had led us into Afghanistan and Iraq. Like many post-Vietnam liberals, he seems to believe that American military power is more likely to do harm than good, and that strategically the United States, and others, would be better off if the Pax Americana passed into desuetude.

This disposition is fortified by Obama’s determination to expand the American welfare state, which is, of course, a hungry maw. The British welfare state ate the Royal Navy, and many Brits, certainly on the left, were quite happy to see Great Britain’s global responsibilities, born in part of imperial sin, fade away or be assumed by the United States.

Will follows means. If you don’t believe you have the means, or that you ought to have the means (in President Obama’s case, both sentiments are surely present), you won’t have the will to intercede energetically and muscularly in foreign affairs. American weakness abroad becomes inevitable, as does the intellectual effort to redefine weakness as strength, and restraint as wisdom.

Liberal realism, which might be a good name for President Obama’s motivating creed, wants to give the benefit of the doubt to our adversaries and hope for the prospects of diplomacy untethered from the use of force. This is acute with the president, who was obviously once taken with his own charismatic possibilities.

His outreach to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s Ali Khamenei, and his attempt to “reset” one of the Bush administration's better decisions, belatedly realizing that Vladimir Putin was a nasty piece of work who was rebirthing an empire — all demonstrate a projection of “pragmatic” values onto folks whose beliefs aren’t ours. Our foes, of course, see reality through the prism of their dog-eat-dog power politics and their own ethical cosmology. It’s by no means clear that Obama’s weakness — and from Paris to Tokyo all are talking about it — encourages our adversaries; it certainly does nothing to dissuade their malevolent actions.

When the Pax Britannica fell, America was there to shore up the liberal world order. If Washington retreats, only the void follows. Things are likely to get very, very nasty and brutish and short.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the CIA’s Clandestine Service is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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