Can anyone actually describe the current foreign policy of the United States? What, for example, is our actual policy toward North Korea? Iran? Do we listen to Joe Biden, who appeared to give Israel a quasi green light to attack Iran's nuclear facilities if it felt threatened, or to Barack Obama, who firmly said he would not approve such an attack. Do we listen to Hillary Clinton, who said we would absolutely not permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons? Or do we listen to the silence from the White House that followed her statement, when affirmation might have been in order?
Do we listen to the president, speaking in Cairo, when he reaffirmed our historic relationship with Israel, or do we listen to the United States consulate in Jerusalem, whose website (http://jerusalem.usconsulate.gov/) contains not a single word about Israel, Christians or Jews, but is flooded with material on our relationship with the Palestinian Arabs?
In 1960, General Maxwell D. Taylor, a World War II airborne commander, and later chief of staff of the United States Army, wrote a book called "The Uncertain Trumpet," based on the Biblical warning, "If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" The book cautioned against what Taylor regarded as an unconvincing American defense strategy.
Today the trumpet is uncertain again.
A new president, who had been the most liberal member of the United States Senate, who is sponsored by a wing of his party generally skeptical of national defense, and who has spent considerable time apologizing overseas for his own country, is in charge of foreign policy. The result, in half a year, is a message of weakness and irresolution, and a growing belief that we have returned to the days of Jimmy Carter, or worse.
Our allies have gotten short shrift. Indeed, one of the first symbolic acts of the Obama presidency was to send back to Britain a bust of Winston Churchill that had been in the Oval Office, even though Britain had never asked for it back. And an astonished Washington Post, hardly an anti-Obama newspaper, opined this week:
"ONE OF THE MORE striking results of the Obama administration's first six months is that only one country has worse relations with the United States than it did in January: Israel. The new administration has pushed a reset button with Russia and sent new ambassadors to Syria and Venezuela; it has offered olive branches to Cuba and Burma. But for nearly three months it has been locked in a public confrontation with Israel over Jewish housing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank. To a less visible extent, the two governments also have differed over policy toward Iran."
What an accomplishment! Get tough with one of our closest friends. This is change we can believe in?
What is the cause of this? Is there some basic flaw in the Obama administration's thinking? Ralph Peters, an analyst not known for pulling punches, believes there is, and that it is fundamental:
"If you're a Harvard-educated member of our ruling class, insulated from violence, poverty and the passions of faith, it's all too easy to convince yourself that al Qaeda 'isn't about religion,' or that Iran's hard-liners 'don't really mean' what they say about longing for Israel's destruction.
"Assuming that everybody else, from Peru to Pakistan, is 'just like us' and 'wants the same things we do' is an old Washington sin. But President Obama has carried it to a level fraught with catastrophic danger."
And what is needed?
"We need to get it straight: The cabal of rulers in Beijing does not seek the same global outcomes we do. Afghan villagers do not dream of a Hamptons lifestyle. Al Qaeda believes that Allah wants bloody vengeance.
"Russians assume they have a right to rule their neighbors. North Korea's leaders do not share our humanitarian concerns. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is not just adding a little salsa to democracy. And Sudan's Arab rulers do not believe that blacks are fully human."
What Peters is saying, of course, is that the administration lacks a grasp of the real world, that its ideas were formed in classrooms, not on battlefields; in the heady salons of Cambridge and Hyde Park in Chicago, not in the inquisition chambers of dictatorships. "In world affairs," Peters says, "self-delusion has always been a formula for catastrophe." What is coming home is that the president, and some of those around him, lack experience in the major-league stadiums of world diplomacy and conflict, and that it is showing.
When a foreign policy lacks a clear, strong thrust, backed by national values, it becomes weak. It becomes the uncertain trumpet. Place yourself in the foreign ministry of either an ally or an enemy today. What do you see? You see an administration that believes that if it acts humbly, its country will be better liked. And if it is better liked, it will get better results. The problem with that analysis is that it assumes that other nations' interests change with our "niceness" or warmth, or our willingness to engage. If we engage the Iranians, we're told, there's at least a chance for some progress on its nuclear program. Never mind that the Europeans have been "engaged" for seven years, without result. This is us. We're special, and we're engaged.
But the opposite argument can just as easily be made: When we show too much interest in "engagement," an opponent can become stiffer, his demands greater, believing that we're bowing to him, even groveling. We've gotten tough with Israel and engaged the Palestinians more strongly than ever, but word out of the Middle East is that the Palestinian Authority is about to toughen its negotiating stance, not make it more flexible. And, despite President Obama's outreach to the Arab world, Saudi Arabia has bluntly rejected our appeal for a gesture of peace toward Israel. Obviously, something isn't working.
Experienced diplomatic reporter Benny Avni is also troubled by the Obama approach, and also attributes it to the president's academic history:
"Problem is, Obama hails from intellectual circles that discourage looking at reality as a series of undisputed facts. Rather, what matters is who tells those facts. History books, for example, should be read not as documents relating real past events, but as tales written by victors of war."
This is the thinking of an academic world that grew up since the 1960s, and follows the values of sixties "multiculturalists" and radicals. Avni argues:
"The obvious contrast is President Ronald Reagan, who believed his country - 'a shining city on the hill' -- had a unique leadership role. He dismissed the Soviet 'narrative' as propaganda, and stressed US 'exceptionalism.'
"Obama? 'I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,' he said at an April NATO summit in Strasbourg. By that measure, everyone is exceptional, and thus no one truly is.
"In fact, some narratives are lies -- and their denial can advance our goals."
The president has a vigorous autumn in store. His poll numbers are down. He is now seen less as a phenomenon or a racial breakthrough than as another American president struggling with problems. His foreign policy is about to be tested as it hasn't been in his first six months. North Korea continues defiant, and nothing Obama has done has stopped its nuclear or missile programs. The president has given Iran until September to respond to his outstretched hand, and until December to show some progress in nuclear negotiations. There is not much optimism on either score.
In Afghanistan, the battle is not going well, and the Obama administration may be asked for more troops. In Iraq, each week brings America closer to withdrawal, but the wrong signal by Washington can encourage the still murderous Iraqi terror groups. And in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Mr. Obama has antagonized the Israeli public to the point where Israel is the only country in the world where the current American president is less popular than the last and Obama has nothing to show for it.
The danger is that America's uncertain trumpet - weakness, softness toward enemies, skepticism toward allies - can lead to a terrible miscalculation, just as Japan miscalculated in 1941, the North Koreans in 1950, and Al Qaeda in 2001. Will the president realize that in time, or will we face, as a result of his policy, what Ralph Peters calls a catastrophe. The fact that we can't answer with assurance shows just how uncertain the trumpet has become.