WASHINGTON -- The world's terrorists and rogue nations have clearly become more dangerous since Barack Obama took office, and analysts say they're testing him to see how much they can get away with.
North Korea, Iran, Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Afghan Taliban have gotten much more threatening in recent months, while the administration pursues a new foreign policy based on the belief that they can achieve much more through soft diplomacy -- sitting down with our adversaries and having a "dialogue" with them.
In an ever more dangerous world, the Obama administration says it is practicing "smart power" instead of "hard power."
"With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told senators at her confirmation hearings.
That's the message Obama has sent since his swearing-in, but so far it doesn't seem to be working. On the contrary, it seems to be encouraging further bad behavior.
Communist North Korea has brazenly stepped up its development and testing of medium-range missiles and nuclear weapons that threaten its neighbors and eventually us.
Taliban forces have grown more aggressive, threatening Afghanistan's weakened government and taking control of the Swat Valley and neighboring areas in Pakistan, where they have moved their troops to within 60 miles of Islamabad.
Al Qaeda has ramped up its deadly suicide bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, amid reports the United States may slow its withdrawal plans if conditions worsen there.
Iran, too, is working overtime to support terrorists while pursuing its own nuclear programs in defiance of United Nations resolutions and economic sanctions. A CIA report to Congress says it has dramatically increased its uranium-enrichment program.
"This has to do with testing him. But in a larger sense, our adversaries and friends alike perceive a potential U.S. vacuum of leadership -- and international leadership abhors a vacuum, and other people are going to do things to fill that vacuum," said foreign-policy analyst Kim Holmes of the Heritage Foundation.
"In the case of North Korea, we are clearly worse off than we were a few months ago," he told me. "What have we got by reaching out to the Iranians? Not much. They are working on their missiles; there's not much change in their posture. Pakistan is certainly more of a worry now, not just in the tribal areas but in Pakistan proper, and the danger of getting control of nuclear weapons, which would be a nightmare."
No change in America's foreign policy is more troubling than Obama's approach to Iran, where his olive-branch diplomacy has done nothing to change that country's path toward war.
"Recent events show that even as the Obama administration seeks to engage Tehran, the Islamic republic has continued to work to undermine U.S. interests and to support anti-American elements around the world, as demonstrated by its ongoing efforts to resupply Hamas, support Hizballah's efforts to destabilize Egypt, and assist Iraqi insurgents," wrote Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute's Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, in a recent PolicyWatch bulletin.
Obama, of course, has many defenders in the foreign-policy community here, but they have growing concerns, too.
"In some ways, I worry about Pakistan the most because it has nuclear weapons. That's a long-term challenge. I like what the administration is doing, but it is starting from a deep hole there," said Heather Hurlburt, who runs the National Security Network, an advocacy group that aggressively defends Obama's policies. Still, she added, "there may be an interest in testing Obama."
"Iraq was calm but isn't looking good right now. It could be a blip or a deterioration," said Karin Von Hippel, a foreign-policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution, who broke with Democrats in defending President Bush's successful military surge in Iraq, said criticism of Obama's foreign policy is unfair at this juncture.
"There are always ups and downs in war. His Pakistan policy as it's emerging -- stronger support for that country's economy and its counterinsurgency capabilities -- is the right idea but will take time to yield results," he told me.
Yet these and other mounting threats abroad "illustrate the weakness of the Obama foreign policy," wrote Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in the Weekly Standard.
What the administration does not seem to grasp is that the battle against the Taliban in Pakistan or the nuclear threats posed by Iran are not going to be solved through soft power or good-faith engagement.
"The Taliban -- or, for that matter, the Iranian leadership -- are motivated not by earthly desires but by a religious ideology, one that brands any government unwilling to bow to their demands as illegitimate and Satanic," Rubin wrote.
Eagerness to compromise with the Taliban, as the Pakistani government sought to do when it turned over the Swat Valley to them in the hopes of a brokered peace, or attempting to buy off Iran or North Korea again, only whets their demands for more concessions. And buys them time.
In the end, that always results in more dangerous consequences.
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