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Between Barack and a Hard Place

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
WASHINGTON -- At times during our history, international events have provided starring roles for American presidents. Teddy Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. John Kennedy's pledge of solidarity, "Ich bin ein Berliner," offered hope to captive people behind the iron curtain. Richard Nixon's "secret" trip to Beijing precipitated still ongoing changes in the People's Republic of China. Ronald Reagan's tough diplomacy -- and his decision to rebuild America's defenses -- turned the tide of the Cold War and hastened the end of an aptly named evil empire.

Then there are world events that consumed presidencies and doomed them to failure. Woodrow Wilson's ill-informed dream of preventing all wars, with the League of Nations, became a nightmare. Lyndon Johnson's hope of being remembered as a civil rights reformer died with his disastrous decisions on the battlefields of Vietnam. Jimmy Carter's naked quest for a "peacemaker's legacy" always will bear the miserable taint of his bungling during the Iranian hostage crisis. Now, with less than 100 days in office, Barack Obama already seems destined for this latter category.

The opening months of the Obama administration's foreign policy have been marked by stunning naivete, serious missteps and ideological blindness to hard realities in an increasingly dangerous world. It is now an open question whether he and his "national security team" can recover.

Just days after becoming commander in chief, Mr. Obama acquiesced in Beijing's demands that U.S. vessels cease surveys within Chinese territorial waters. Russia rebuffed his "hand of friendship" and bribed Tajikistan into closing a U.S. base crucial to operations in Afghanistan. Pakistan replied to his "mutual respect for Islam" by allowing the world's most notorious nuclear weapons proliferator, A.Q. Khan, to return to business as usual. The Iranians sized up his offer for direct negotiations on nuclear weapons by turning on more centrifuges and locking up an American journalist. His "apologize for America first" tour of Europe brought cheers but no new commitments from NATO for help in Afghanistan. He was applauded for promising to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, but then he learned no one else would take the terrorists housed there.

Mr. Obama's release of top-secret Bush administration documents on interrogation techniques -- and his botched determination on whether to hold show trials for those who authorized such efforts to prevent further terror attacks -- shocked allied intelligence services. His performance at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad brought accolades from the mainstream media, but it disheartened those in Cuban, Venezuelan, Nicaraguan and Bolivian prisons who have committed no crimes except to speak out against their governments.

In Trinidad, Mr. Obama sat quietly -- and, apparently, attentively -- through a mind-numbing anti-American rant by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, during which the Sandinista leader accused the U.S. of heinous crimes. When it was over, Mr. Obama was asked his opinion. He replied, "It was 50 minutes long." No rebuttal. No defense of America or his predecessors' efforts to offer others the hope of freedom.

When Venezuela's Hugo Chavez gave him a homework assignment -- to read the virulently anti-American screed "Open Veins of Latin America" -- Mr. Obama accepted it with a smile for the cameras. Perhaps we should be grateful that he didn't bow to Mr. Chavez, as he did to Saudi King Abdullah. Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, described the Obama-Chavez photographs as "an enormous propaganda victory for the Socialist dictator." They were also another stab in the back to former President George W. Bush, whom Mr. Chavez once called "the devil" in the U.N. General Assembly.

The Obama administration's penitent foreign policy is evident in its approach to the U.N. and the International Criminal Court, which is a U.N. body hostile to American service members -- the same ones the Obama administration describes as "Disgruntled Military Veterans." America's new willingness to be pilloried publicly was apparent in Geneva this week at the U.N.'s Durban Review Conference on racism.

There the "star performer" was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with whom Mr. Obama wants to sit down and parley about nuclear weapons. Mr. Ahmadinejad's text accused the United States of "military aggression to make an entire nation homeless on the pretext of Jewish sufferings and the ambiguous and dubious question of Holocaust." His diatribe depicted America's closest ally in the Middle East as "racist perpetrators of genocide," and he said, "It is time the ideal of Zionism, which is the paragon of racism, be broken."

Though the U.S. delegation rightly did not attend this virulently anti-American, anti-Israeli bashing session, it is regrettable that the Obama administration has yet to object formally to the language or the "findings" of this U.N. conference. The deafening silence from the White House undoubtedly makes Mr. Ahmadinejad eager to get those nuclear negotiations on Mr. Obama's calendar of coming events.

Co-written by Thomas Kilgannon. Thomas Kilgannon is the president of Freedom Alliance and the author of "Diplomatic Divorce: Why America Should End Its Love Affair With the United Nations." He contributed from Geneva, where he is reporting on the U.N.'s Durban Review Conference for Radio America.

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