Our Gravest Peril

ObamaCare? Stagnant economy? Crushing debt? Foreign-policy fecklessness may trump them all.

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Source: Wall Street Journal

America's most worrisome problem may not be the failed takeover of our healthcare system. It may not be our languishing economy or even the massive federal debt hanging over future generations. As dangerous as these problems are, perhaps more perilous is just how far our nation has fallen in the eyes of our allies and the lack of caution our feckless foreign policy inspires in our adversaries.

Our country too often looks weak. Our foreign policy too often seems rudderless and unreliable. Washington is abuzz over the new memoir by Robert Gates, the former defense secretary, with its recounting of the Obama administration's defense-policy shortcomings. It is interesting reading, but anyone paying attention over the last five years already knew this administration often fails to get critical military and foreign-policy matters right.

The recent interim accord with Iran is yet another example of the administration's flawed thinking, as it agreed to reduce sanctions on Tehran to the tune of billions of dollars in return for not much of anything. Iran's concessions included some delays in its nuclear efforts, but nothing of lasting consequence. This is the sweetheart deal we give to a regime that has aided attacks on our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and has for decades been listed by our own government as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, took to Twitter to declare that "world powers surrendered to Iranian nation's will." It's difficult to argue, although he did break the fundamental rule of negotiation that says if you want to keep bulldozing the other side, it's better not to gloat. The U.S. negotiators broke a fundamental rule of foreign policy, the one that says a government like Iran, which kills its own people and abets terrorism, can't be trusted to keep its word.

We can hope the U.S. negotiators do a better job in future discussions with Iran, but experience gives reason for pessimism. Once Iran has nuclear weapons, there will be a strong impetus for other nations in the area to add similar capabilities. If this administration finds it difficult dealing with Tehran now, think of the constraints a fully nuclear Iran will pose.

The Iran blunder follows the Syrian "red line" fiasco, in which we saw the president struggle to extricate himself from his threat to punish Syria if it used poison gas, first by delegating the decision on military action to Congress and then, when it was clear Congress wouldn't lead, by handing the matter off to Russia. It was painful to watch, but there were no doubt smiles in Damascus and Moscow. And, don't think this fumbling was overlooked in Tehran, Pyongyang and other capitals, including perhaps Beijing.

The Iran and Syria missteps are signs that President Obama's second term will be no better than his first, characterized by a critical lack of understanding that despots, terrorists and other adversaries see American weakness as a green light to bad behavior. Early on, we saw Mr. Obama's penchant for downplaying America's contribution for good in the world. There was his 2009 reneging on our nation's promise of missile defense assistance for our allies in Eastern Europe, done in a failed and naive attempt to placate Russia's Vladimir Putin. We saw exit strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan that seemed bereft of any concerns about forfeiting hard-won and costly progress, missteps in handling both the Iranian protests of 2009 and the Arab Spring. "Leading from behind" in Libya set the stage for Benghazi.

Few governmental responsibilities are as critical or assigned so explicitly to the federal government in the Constitution as ensuring a strong national defense. In today's world, this responsibility demands the same strength and principled resolve that administrations of both parties projected during the Cold War. Our allies must know they can rely on us, and our enemies must respect us and fear the consequences of misbehavior. Foreign policy will always be difficult and often entails choosing the least bad option. Even by that realistic standard, the Obama administration has too often fallen short.