Amid the media gang tackle of Sarah Palin as she flogs her book, the refrain that she was — and is — unworthy of respect as a policy cipher and ignoramus is heard again around the land. Liberal pundits still wax indignant about the chutzpah of the Republicans in nominating a person for the vice presidency who lacked experience and good judgment. And yet even as the focus on Palin reached a crescendo this week, the inexperienced person whom the Democrats put at the top of their ticket took his show on the road in Asia, and the negative reviews of his astonishingly bad performance while abroad are still coming in.
As a “news analysis” that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times noted, “with the novelty of a visit as America’s first black president having given way to the reality of having to plow through intractable issues like monetary policy (China), trade (Singapore, China, South Korea), security (Japan) and the 800-pound gorilla on the continent (China), Mr. Obama’s Asia trip has been, in many ways, a long, uphill slog.”
The media did not miss the way the Chinese leadership handled Obama. Even such a purveyor of the conventional wisdom as David Gergen wrote on CNN.com to compare Obama’s poor performance with that of another young and inexperienced president, John F. Kennedy, whose disastrous 1961 meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave the Russians the impression that the Americans didn’t know what they were doing and that they could be pushed around. That led to the nearly catastrophic showdown over missiles in Cuba a year later.
“Why bring up that story now, as President Obama comes home from Asia?” Gergen asks. “Because it has considerable relevance to his meetings in China with President Hu. Obama went into those sessions like Kennedy: with great hope that his charm and appeal to reason — qualities so admired in the United States — would work well with Hu. By numerous accounts, that is not at all what happened: reports from correspondents on the scene are replete with statements that Hu stiffed the President.”
Gergen is right. Though the most embarrassing moment of the trip was Obama’s obsequious deep bow to the Japanese emperor — which was duly noted by American bloggers and dismissed by the liberal punditry as well as by the White House — the real damage done to the national interest by Obama’s travels is the way he has come across to America’s rivals and foes, not to our allies. The Chinese, like the Iranians and the Russians, all think they have the measure of Barack Obama. He strikes them as a weak man more interested in trying to please and to evoke applause than in standing up for principles such as human rights or even the danger of nuclear proliferation. The occasional tough talk that has come from Obama has been undermined by his relentless devotion to engagement, which has convinced these countries that he is a leader to be trifled with. That is the only explanation for the disrespect that the Iranians have shown to his diplomatic outreach as well as for the harsh way in which the Chinese demonstrated their disdain for the president.
Gergen believes that Obama must treat this as a moment for a “wake up call” to revive his foreign policy. “For the President, the challenge is whether he will start approaching international affairs with a greater measure of toughness, standing up more firmly and assertively for American interests.”
We will soon see whether Obama is capable of doing that or whether his blind faith in engagement as well as his unbounded desire for adulation will lead to similar or worse fiascoes in the future. The problem, as the Kennedy example highlights, is that the country’s margin for error on dangerous foreign-policy issues is limited. Obama’s ongoing failure to act to halt Iran’s nuclear program is evidence of the price the country is paying for the president’s on-the-job education. Those laughing hardest at Sarah Palin’s antics may be enjoying themselves as her media circus rules the 24/7 news cycle. But Obama’s weakness, a fault rooted deeply in his inexperience in foreign affairs as well as in his overweening vanity, has become a major liability for the United States, the price of which has yet to be fully assessed.