What a difference a few weeks make. On September 24, the New York Times reported this:
President Obama, in his first visit to the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, made progress . . . on two key issues, wringing a concession from Russia to consider tough new sanctions against Iran and securing support from Moscow and Beijing for a Security Council resolution to curb nuclear weapons. The successes came as Mr. Obama told leaders that the United States intended to begin a new era of engagement with the world, in a sweeping address to the General Assembly in which he sought to clearly delineate differences between himself and the administration of President George W. Bush.
One of the fruits of those differences — although White House officials were loath to acknowledge any quid pro quo publicly — emerged during Mr. Obama’s meeting on Wednesday afternoon with President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia, the first between the two since Mr. Obama decided to replace Mr. Bush’s missile defense program in Eastern Europe with a version less threatening to Moscow.
With a beaming Mr. Obama standing next to him, Mr. Medvedev signaled for the first time that Russia would be amenable to longstanding American requests to toughen sanctions against Iran significantly if, as expected, nuclear talks scheduled for next month failed to make progress. ”I told His Excellency Mr. President that we believe we need to help Iran to take a right decision,” Mr. Medvedev said, adding that ”sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases, sanctions are inevitable.”
White House officials could barely hide their glee. ”I couldn’t have said it any better myself,” a delighted Michael McFaul, Mr. Obama’s senior adviser for democracy and Russia, told reporters after the meeting. He insisted nonetheless that the administration had not tried to buy Russia’s cooperation with its decision to scrap the missile shield in Europe in favor of a reconfigured system. Privately, several administration officials did acknowledge that missile defense might have had something to do with Moscow’s newfound verbal cooperation on the Iran sanctions issue.
Today in the New York Times we read this:
Denting President Obama’s hopes for a powerful ally in his campaign to press Iran on its nuclear program, Russia’s foreign minister said Tuesday that threatening Tehran now with harsh new sanctions would be “counterproductive.” The minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said after meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton here that diplomacy should be given a chance to work, particularly after a meeting in Geneva this month in which the Iranian government said it would allow United Nations inspectors to visit its clandestine nuclear enrichment site near the holy city of Qum.
“At the current stage, all forces should be thrown at supporting the negotiating process,” he said. “Threats, sanctions and threats of pressure in the current situation, we are convinced, would be counterproductive.”
Apart from the fact that White House officials are presumably able to hide their glee today, what ought we to make of these developments?
The first is that President Obama looks to have been taken to the cleaners by the Russians. The United States bowed before Russian demands when it came to retooling a missile-defense system for Poland and the Czech Republic. We gave up something tangible and important — and in return we got a vague promise that Russia might be amenable to tougher sanctions against Iran. Now that vague promise appears to be inoperative — but the decision to scrap the Bush-era missile-defense program remains in place.
This episode captures Obama’s approach to international affairs and underscores its dangers. The president is weak and flaccid when it comes to our adversaries, and unreliable and unsteady when it comes to our allies. America’s enemies don’t respect us, and our allies increasingly don’t trust us. President Obama garners praise from the man attempting to lead a Marxist revolution in Latin America, Hugo Chavez, and is criticized by the hero of Solidarity, Lech Walesa. We pressure friends like Israel, Honduras, Poland, and the Czech Republic, and place our hopes in the goodwill and reasonableness of regimes like Russia, North Korea, and Iran. And in the process, some of the world’s foremost spokesmen for democracy publicly express their concern that Obama is “softening on human rights.”
It was not supposed to be this difficult when Obama ran for president, when tyrants would bend to the will of America’s “sort of god.” But reality is turning out to be a tough task master for our young president. All around the world, Mr. Obama is increasingly seen as impotent; he is both popular and largely ignored, viewed more as a celebrity than as an imposing leader.
It is all quite alarming and dangerous.