In recent weeks, North Korea tested a long-range missile that could someday hold a nuclear warhead and threaten American shores. It is preparing to test a nuclear device for a third time. We are entering an exceptionally dangerous period, one that has us "within an inch of war," according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
It is difficult to know what kinds of calculations or miscalculations North Korea's young new leader and his entourage might make in the period ahead. But there are other reasons for worry far from the corridors of power in Pyongyang.
The last weeks and months have exposed profound dysfunction in the corridors of Washington where U.S. foreign and defense policy are formulated. With President Obama's foreign policy unraveling, his reelection campaign has been quick to attack Mitt Romney as a distraction. But events abroad may be bringing us to a juncture at which the inexperience and incompetence of a presidency crystallizes in the public mind. In short, we are approaching a Jimmy Carter moment. In a perilous world, this is not the kind of leadership our country needs.
The case of North Korea illustrates a foreign policy untethered from any overarching strategy. All recent administrations have wrestled with the challenges posed by the predictably unpredictable regime in Pyongyang. But few administrations have taken a sucker punch like the one delivered on April 14, when North Korea tested a long-range missile.
The North Korean missile launch may have failed in its purported objective of putting a satellite into space, but it certainly succeeded in its political objective of knocking the United States off guard. It was only weeks earlier, after all, that the Obama administration decided to trust the new leader and reached an agreement with North Korea promising food aid in exchange for halting missile tests and some enrichment activities. But it was no sooner agreed to than violated. By extending an olive branch to Pyongyang only to have it snapped off at the stem, the Obama administration's singular achievement was to showcase its own naiveté and weakness.
The trouble with naiveté and weakness is that they tempt aggression, which brings us to Syria. There Bashar al-Assad, another scion of a dictator, continues the carnage that has already taken some 9,000 lives and left so many others maimed by shellfire and torture. This has been going on for over a year. Here we get a clear picture of the Obama Doctrine in action: one part bluster, one part incoherence, and one part paralysis.
When the carnage began, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton downplayed the Syrian regime's brutality, emphasizing that many in Washington saw Assad as a "reformer." As the carnage continued unabated, she stated that "world opinion is not going to stand idly by." But in both instances, standing idly is exactly what "world opinion" -- supposedly led by the Obama administration -- has done.
Iran is the third corner in this triangle of foreign-policy failure. The basic fact is that the regime in Tehran is racing forward with its nuclear arms program. For more than three years, the Obama administration has ineptly pushed various buttons and pulled various levers, from engagement to belated sanctions and now back to engagement, without any sign that it is making progress toward its stated objective of stopping the Iranian bomb-building project. Its only accomplishment has been to give the ayatollahs time to enrich uranium, harden bunkers, and come closer to a nuclear weapons capability than ever before.
President Obama's lack of resolute action and the absence of demonstrable results make hollow his declaration that a nuclear-armed Iran is "unacceptable." The path he has set us on leads to a nuclear-armed Iran. And once that occurs, the unacceptable will -- to Barack Obama -- become the accepted.
Jimmy Carter's stewardship of foreign affairs came to a culmination in the twin disasters of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage drama. We can only hope that the final months of Barack Obama's term are not an occasion for similar disasters. But what his record underscores is the urgency of putting new and stronger leadership in the White House. Events are demonstrating on an almost daily basis that the team running the show is far out of its depth. A Mitt Romney presidency will not come a day too soon.