During a Dec. 8 news conference, President Obama rebuked his Republican foreign policy critics: "Ask Osama bin Laden … whether I engage in appeasement," Obama fired back.
The president has a point, of course. The special forces raid to get Bin Laden deep in Pakistan was an extremely gutsy call. So too the extrajudicial death sentence that Obama imposed on U.S. citizen Anwar Awlaki in Yemen. More generally, the president has been a veritable killing machine when it comes to anti-American jihadists, escalating drone attacks tenfold against our most fanatical enemies. And for all the complaints about "leading from behind," the bottom line in Libya was indisputable: Obama said Moammar Kadafi must go, and then put U.S. military power to the task of making it so — swiftly, without quagmire and at minimal cost to the U.S.
On the face of it, then, the president appears to have displayed sufficient steeliness of spine — a readiness to wield force wisely — to insulate himself against the brickbats of his political opponents. Vulnerable as Obama may be on the economy, national polling suggests much greater approval for his stewardship over foreign affairs. For the majority of Americans, doubts about Obama's fitness to serve as commander in chief have largely been laid to rest.
And yet it would be a serious error to conclude that criticisms of Obama's foreign policy are without foundation. Though the American public may have reached a certain comfort level with the president's leadership, beyond these shores — especially in the world's most volatile region, the Middle East — faith in U.S. power, credibility and resolve has dangerously eroded. There, concerns run deep over the administration's lack of strategic vision, its instinct for retreat and its complicity in the unraveling of a benevolent imperium that has for decades underwritten the region's security.
The signposts are there for anyone who cares to notice. In a November article, a senior Middle East correspondent for the New York Times referred matter-of-factly to an Arab world "where the United States is increasingly viewed as a power in decline." Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, no enemy of the president, has reported from Riyadh on a new activism in Saudi Arabia's policy born of "the diminished clout of the United States." Indeed, Ignatius concludes that the Saudis consider Obama "a relatively weak leader" and no longer view the United States as a guarantor of their security — a "striking" shift in the kingdom's security doctrine, which had stood for more than 60 years.
So acute is the crisis of confidence that America's closest allies now openly question Washington's reliability and mettle. Months after Obama's rapid embrace of an Egyptian revolution that toppled the United States' most important Arab partner, Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah II was asked whether the region's leaders could still depend on the U.S. With shocking candor, Abdullah responded: "I think everybody is wary of dealing with the West.... Looking at how quickly people turned their backs on Mubarak, I would say that most people are going to try and go their own way."
No less remarkable was the alarm over U.S. policy that Bahrain's foreign minister expressed in October. Clearly unnerved by a deepening sense of U.S. irresolution, the Bahraini minister implored Obama to at long last push back against Iran's repeated provocations, including an attempted plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington: "We're asking the U.S. to stand up for its interests and draw the red lines.... How many times have you lost lives, been subject to terrorist activities, and yet we haven't seen any proper response. This is really serious. It's coming to your shores now."
In private conversations I've had with Middle Eastern officials, the sense of unease and dread expressed are only more severe. Fairly or not, these leaders appear to have taken Obama's measure and found him wanting. Their bill of indictment includes retreat from Iraq and, soon, Afghanistan; betrayal of longtime U.S. allies, especially Mubarak; indulgence of enemy regimes in Tehran and Damascus; overblown promises to end the Palestinian conflict; and a persistent failure to mount the type of credible military option that these leaders believe is necessary for addressing the region's most urgent threat — Iran's quest for nuclear weapons.
The hardening conviction that the U.S. is disengaging from the Middle East should be cause for real concern. The region already finds itself on the verge of a nervous breakdown, racked by revolutions, violent repression and the specter of Iranian theocrats wielding the world's most dangerous weapons. Growing doubts about U.S. reliability and resolve only add fuel to the fire. The resulting strategic vacuum is an open invitation for miscalculation and conflict — Iran's recent threats in the Strait of Hormuz being Exhibit A.
No good can come from the perception of the United States in retreat, a willing accomplice in the dismantling of a regional order — Pax Americana — that has been the linchpin of Mideast security for decades. It's a dangerously corrosive narrative, one that left unchecked will breed uncertainty, instability and even war. Disabusing friend and foe alike of its accuracy should be a top priority for Obama.
John Hannah, former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.