Where the mild things are…

Secretary of State Clinton went to Russia to discuss the possibility of putting sanctions on Iran. The Russians pushed back hard and publicly. The State Department weakly responded that they hadn’t come to Moscow looking for anything in the first place. The Iranians taunt us with their open nuclear ambitions and we don’t have much ...

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Secretary of State Clinton went to Russia to discuss the possibility of putting sanctions on Iran. The Russians pushed back hard and publicly. The State Department weakly responded that they hadn't come to Moscow looking for anything in the first place.

The Iranians taunt us with their open nuclear ambitions and we don't have much to credibly offer in the way of sanctions (see above) and so we find ourselves grasping at straws in terms of an international dialogue with them. We are forced to take proven liars at their word because there is no realistic Plan B.

Secretary of State Clinton went to Russia to discuss the possibility of putting sanctions on Iran. The Russians pushed back hard and publicly. The State Department weakly responded that they hadn’t come to Moscow looking for anything in the first place.

The Iranians taunt us with their open nuclear ambitions and we don’t have much to credibly offer in the way of sanctions (see above) and so we find ourselves grasping at straws in terms of an international dialogue with them. We are forced to take proven liars at their word because there is no realistic Plan B.

The North Koreans do as the Iranians do. They taunt knowing there will be no meaningful retaliation, especially if they dangle the possibility of progress with negotiations even as they flaunt the spirit of those negotiations.

Our ally in Afghanistan bald-facedly steals an election because he knows he has us over a barrel, believing we need him more than he needs us and that in any event, we won’t punish him for his indiscretions. Our reaction is grumbling and strong language and planning for him to remain in his misappropriated office.

On Afghan policy there is an all-in, all-out debate and it increasingly looks like the president will split the difference between both sides. David Ignatius writes in today’s Washington Post:

Obama’s deliberative pace is either heartening or maddening, depending on your perspective. Personally, I think he’s wise to take his time on an issue in which it’s so hard to know the right answer. But I worry that the White House approach will soften the edges so much that the policy itself will be fuzzy and doomed to failure.

On the Hill, again the difference is split on health care and the Baucus plan backed by the administration doesn’t meaningfully address the core concerns that triggered the debate about health care reform in the first place — issues like universal coverage or the need to substantially reduce health care spending or the need to get the books to balance.

During the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, at a lunch as the meeting drew to a close, the Chinese walked in and demanded that a paragraph in the final statement on climate change be cut. Everyone in the room was gobsmacked and stopped eating while the Chinese representative blithely consumed his lunch. One of those present asked, “Where were the Americans? Why was there no pushback? The Europeans were furious.”

Peter Feaver wrote for FP an article chiding Hillary Clinton for not having taken a bold stance, making an issue her own thus far. Quite apart from the fact that I think his analysis was faulty, the reality is that the tough stances come from above, the president is the one who draws the lines in the sand. As far as decisive administration’s policies are concerned, the title of her book on the subject might read, It Takes a President.

Right now, even his strongest supporters — and I count myself among them — are worried that much as Abe Lincoln was the great rail splitter, Barack Obama may become known as the great difference splitter. A former senior official, active on the president’s campaign sat in my office just yesterday worrying aloud about whether this is just learning curve behavior or whether we are drifting toward Jimmy II. There is a place for deliberation and compromise in the quivers of wise leaders, he argued, but there is also a need to be decisive and sometimes to push to fulfill a vision or defend an ideal or an interest.

There are real merits to being the no-drama Obama of campaign fame. But in a world in which the Chinese or the Iranians or the North Koreans or Republicans or wings of the Democratic Party are inclined to push as hard as they can until they meet real resistance, it’s fast coming time for the president to show he is willing to lose some friends and even some battles to defend his principles or the national interest. It can be a fist of steel in a velvet glove, resolve born of reflection, but there are a lot of supporters of Obama worry that he is a man who sending a message that there are no consequences for crossing him. On Afghanistan, on health care reconciliation, on his upcoming trip to China, on climate, there are chances looming for him to show that he knows what he wants and that he is willing to fight for it. I’m hopeful this is the moment he really will start to come into his own as president.

It was recently reported that Obama’s favorite phrase is “Let me be clear.” I think the response to that of his concerned supporters would be, “Please do.” It’s the path that is most likely to have them once again singing, “Mild thing, I think I love you.”

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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