Barack Obama came into the presidency promising to improve America’s standing in the world. He seems to have forgotten it is just as important for a superpower to be feared–or better yet respected–as to be loved. In point of fact, as polls attest, Obama has not made the United States loved in the Muslim world and other key areas– just 14 percent of Egyptians have a favorable view of the U.S. Nor has Obama made the U.S. respected.
That much is obvious from Russia’s decision to grant accused traitor Edward Snowden political asylum. Vladimir Putin fully heard out the administration’s pleas that Snowden be sent back home to face trial for his crimes–and he consciously decided to aggravate the United States instead of accommodating it. It’s not as if the fate of Edward Snowden was so important to Putin. The young NSA turncoat matters only for his symbolic value: By granting asylum to Snowden, Putin is humiliating Obama.
The fact that Putin would send such a signal over such an inconsequential issue is a sign of how little he cares about potential American retaliation. And why should he? Obama has done precious little during his time in office to convey the impression that he will back up his threats–except of course against Osama bin Laden. But precious few other issues can be resolved neatly and expeditiously with a Special Operations raid or a drone strike.
Case in point: His agonized hesitancy over Syria where he first drew a “red line,” then hesitated to acknowledge that it had been crossed, and even when he did concede that, yes, Assad had used chemical weapons, his reaction was as minimal as possible–agreeing to send some infantry weapons to the Syrian opposition which have not yet been delivered. Obama understandably doesn’t want to get stuck in the Syrian morass. But he should understand that when the president of the United States makes threats and then fails to make good on them, that has consequences for America’s dealings with the rest of the world. It sends a message of irresolution that cunning predators like Putin can smell from half a world away. The result: Snowden will have an opportunity to upgrade his tastes from pizza and fried chicken to caviar and blinis.
At the very least Obama must register his displeasure by cancelling a planned summit with Putin on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg in September. That seems likely to happen, but indications are that Obama is still planning to attend the G20. He shouldn’t, notwithstanding the temporary flap it will cause; otherwise he will only convey to Putin and his ilk the impression that he is a pushover in the harsh and unforgiving realm of international politics.