Barack Obama’s miscommunication of plans to move ahead with an American missile defense project in Poland, and his subsequent contradiction of Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s statement, are bigger problems than most are readily admitting. John Bolton, characteristically, calls it like he sees it. In the Wall Street Journal, Bolton writes that Russia’s recent vow to place missile assets in Poland was an act of aggression aimed at Obama and at Kaczynski. Obama’s mistake and disavowal leaves a Polish-American partnership looking very foolish, because Obama “should have understood that foreign leaders, both friends and adversaries, are in a state of high tension.”
But what if Obama doesn’t understand “a state of high tension”? For all the talk of his presidential temperament, there was something eerie about Obama’s cool that was never brought up. Is it presidential not to get worked up over anything? When John McCain pressed Obama hard in the last debate, it is true Obama did not get rattled. But something noticeable came into his face. It wasn’t annoyance so much as the flash of an error message. As if he simply didn’t have the software necessary for expressing anger.
What other software is missing? The national guessing game underway right now is a function of the fact that Obama has never unequivocally held an important position. His declarations are four parts wiggle-room, one-part resolve. Either that or they face certain reversal. Missile defense, off-shore drilling, guns, partial-birth abortion, troop withdrawal–there are truly too many examples of lingering haziness to list. Is it presidential to elevate indecision to a kind of intellectual philosophy?
True, these feel like campaign issues, part of all the depressing baggage that should be discarded after the merciless race. But they are also post-campaign issues, as the Kaczynski mishap demonstrates. Obama was either unaware of the geostrategic fragility of the moment, or unable to overcome his ambivalence on missile defense — or both. As a result “the incoming U.S. president,” in John Bolton’s words, looks “disturbingly weak.” If this is a software problem, someone in his pool of advisors needs to do an upload and get the President-elect to focus on more than popularity and composure. Hopefully, Obama can turn his superficial fluidity into useful responsiveness. If, however, it is a hardware issue, then we are in for one long state of extremely high tension.