In short, in the 39 months since Obama announced that great powers do "not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries," Russia has exerted itself to defy the United States and NATO and increase its political investment in rogue regimes -- in particular in Syria and Iran. In the three-and-a-half years since the policy's inception, the Obama reset has been a head-shaking disappointment.
Yet throughout the summer of 2012 the Obama administration repeatedly voiced hope that Putin, newly re-elected as Russian president, would help end the carnage in Syria. Despite thousands of civilian casualties in Syria's expanding civil conflict, Obama invoked no interest or principle in favor of supporting the anti-Assad dissidents, though he had cited a "responsibility to protect" the Libyan rebels, who suffered fewer casualties. As the New York Times explained, Obama's focus in the Syria crisis was on working with Russia and through the United Nations Security Council. He strove to persuade Putin to encourage the Syrian dictator to step down. Though generally friendly to the Obama administration, the Washington Post's editors lamented its naïveté toward Russia: "Even if Mr. Putin could be persuaded, he probably lacks the means to force out Mr. Assad and his clan. Mr. Obama's apparent faith that Mr. Putin is ready to do business with him is at odds with the strongman's recent behavior..." Obama failed to appreciate Putin's interest in reasserting Russian influence in the Middle East. Russia's predominant interest is in high oil prices and Middle Eastern turmoil serves that interest, yet Obama simply assumed that Russia would cooperate with American efforts to promote Middle Eastern stability.
When Obama offered blandishments to Russia in Europe, he did so at the expense of U.S. allies in Poland and the Czech Republic. Those countries had agreed with President Bush to host American missile defense radars and interceptors. This was controversial there, but the leaders believed that cooperating with the United States served crucial strategic purposes. Poland and the Czech Republic had both been brutalized throughout much of the 20th century, first by the Nazis and then the Soviets. Many Poles and Czechs supported entry into the Western alliance eagerly, indeed passionately, as the guarantee that they would never again lose their independence to Germans, Russians, or anyone else. Because they cherish their American security ties as the key to their countries' future safety and freedom, the leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic aimed to strengthen those ties through their missile-defense agreements with the United States.
Obama, however, apparently decided that those agreements were less important than the goodwill he might buy with Russia by cancelling them. Maintaining solidarity with allies that look to America as the leader of the free world has never been an Obama administration priority. In setting aside the missile-defense agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic, the president embarrassed their pro-American leaders, hurt the NATO alliance, showed weakness toward Russia, deemphasized the importance of missile defense, and called America's word into question -- all in all, a multifaceted disservice to U.S. security interests.
The view that the Obama policy is naïve and bumbling has some merit and helps account for some of the wrong steps regarding Russia. But it ignores the larger problem of Obama's negative conception of America's role in the world.
Within the community of progressive American academics -- the community of which Obama and key members of his administration have long been proud members -- the idea of America as leader of the free world commands little respect. The very term "free world" is disfavored, as is the idea of the United States as leader. Rather than see American power and assertiveness as desirable, progressive faculty members at leading universities commonly look at them negatively, as major sources of international tension. According to this view, building bridges to states that fear American power will earn the United States respect and encourage harmony, but strengthening existing alliances and supporting democratic friends reinforces American influence and aggravates fear abroad of American hegemony. The United States is seen as more the cause of international problems than the answer. It is a theme the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick in 1984 famously referred to as "blame America first."