There are times when this administration's foreign policy brings to mind the weather here in Arkansas: If you don't like it, wait a minute. It'll change. See the president's latest decision about how to deal with Russia -- or rather how not to deal with Russia -- because he's just canceled a summit with its president/tsar.
As usual, Barack Obama's hapless press secretary -- Poor Jay Carney -- got the job of putting a positive spin on his boss' latest change of heart. And the president's chief spokesflack couldn't have been more diplomatic about it: "We have informed the Russian government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda."
What ever happened to the Barack Obama who used to dismiss Edward Snowden, our leaker-in-chief and now the world's most prominent fugitive interruptus, as just an insignificant "hacker" whose fate shouldn't be allowed to interfere with Russo-American harmony?
These days our president is accusing the Kremlin of acting like, well, the Kremlin. "There have been times," he complained to Jay Leno, that well-known foreign policy expert and host of NBC's "Tonight Show," that Russian leaders tend to "slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality. And what I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is that's the past."
The president's attitude toward the Russians has been consistent? Good thing he said so, or the rest of us might not have noticed, having only his record to go by. This is the president who began his tenure by dropping his predecessor's plans for a nuclear defense shield over Eastern Europe, leaving our long-time allies there, the Poles and Czechs, in the lurch. It was his secretary of state at the time, the Hon. Hillary Clinton, who proclaimed a "reset" in American policy toward Russia at the beginning of this administration.
Now the president seems to be resetting his Russian policy yet again. And he has reason to -- after l'affaire Snowden, not to mention the Kremlin's refusal to help stop the slaughter in Syria, its canceling American adoptions of Russian orphans, and generally responding to American overtures with a a clear, repeated, unwavering nyet.
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Washington in turn has done little but waver when it comes to fashioning a coherent foreign policy. Consider, if you don't mind being made a little dizzy, the administration's response to tumultuous developments in Egypt: This president began his tenure by making an apology tour of the Middle East, and extending a hand of friendship to its various dictatorships, including Hosni Mubarak's police state on the Nile -- until it fell apart.
Surprised by the sudden eruption and fast spread of the Arab Spring, the administration then abandoned Egypt's dictator and embraced Mohammed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, as duly elected president and increasingly authoritarian ruler of Egypt. When that country's new pharaoh soon proved tyrannical as well as incompetent in general, Washington declined to notice -- till it had to.
Even when Brother Morsi was overthrown by a military coup, the president's new secretary of state, John Kerry, insisted on calling the coup a "transition to democracy." Dizzy yet? I am.
Throughout all these twists and turns and spins and turnabouts, the one thing our president has avoided in shaping his foreign policy, if he can be said to have one, is any consistent purpose. Which is a sure way to win the contempt of all sides as Egypt collapses. By aiming to please all, he's pleased no one.
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To quote Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, there's no way to guarantee success in foreign relations, but there's one sure way to guarantee failure -- "for the United States to waffle." And our president seems to do little else but waffle when it comes to foreign affairs. His is less a foreign policy than an improvisation. Call it an ad-hoc series of changeable positions with only one factor in common: drift.
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Not since a president named James Earl Carter Jr. has this country had a more irresolute foreign policy. Mr. Carter began his less than successful tenure in the White House by denouncing Americans' "inordinate fear of communism," and didn't wake up till the Soviets invaded Afghanistan some three years later. Only then did he see what the Soviets' "ultimate goals" were. As if communist aggression had been some kind of well-kept secret till then.
Let it be said, however, that Jimmy Carter did finally take note of Moscow's mischief-making all over the globe. And now Barack Obama may finally be stirring in his sleep, but even this late in his presidency he seems curiously incurious about Russian ambitions in the Middle East. Or the role that regimes like those in Egypt and Iran play in fulfilling them. Nor does he seem aware of the high cost of vacillation when it comes to dealing with friend or foe, ally or enemy.
At least Barack Obama has accepted the necessity of waging what George W. Bush named the War on Terror -- even if our current president still refuses to call it that, but prefers some vague euphemism like Overseas Contingency Operations. He's even expanded that war in many respects -- from a greater reliance on drones to massive intelligence collections, aka data-mining.
Yes, the enemy will get through on occasion (see Boston, April 15, 2013, and Fort Hood, Texas, November 5, 2009), but this president has learned a lot since he used to scoff at his predecessor's determination to take this war to the enemy. And it's a good thing he has. The country is safer for it.
And, yes, this president may still pay lip service to closing down the military prison at Guantanamo and distributing its captive terrorists throughout the country and/or the world. But more and more it sounds like only lip service. As if he has begun to understand what an unrealistic -- and dangerous -- course shutting down Gitmo could prove.
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One day this president might recognize the need for consistency in conducting the foreign affairs of the United States. But so far the one constant in his conduct of American foreign policy has been its inconstancy. He seems determined only to remain undetermined. In the words of Winston Churchill about another flailing statesman, Barack Obama seems "decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent."
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)