Yesterday China returned the U.S. Navy underwater drone it had seized last Friday in international waters in the South China Sea. The incident has been portrayed by critics of President Barack Obama as the latest illustration of how his purported weakness has emboldened America’s rivals and adversaries. But the seizure of the drone and the prompt resolution of the standoff through diplomatic channels actually illustrated the complexity of escalation when the costs of conflict are great and the threshold for acts of war murky.
The narrative of Obama’s weakness has its roots in the early days of his presidency. His initial public diplomacy efforts to repair the damage done to America’s global standing by the Iraq War and the global war on terrorism were derided by critics as an “apology tour.” His muted response in 2009 to Iran’s crackdown on the Green Movement protests was similarly cited as evidence of a tendency to appease enemies.
Meanwhile, Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq according to the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by the George W. Bush administration, rather than push more forcefully to extend their deployment, underscored his extreme reluctance to engage the U.S. in costly and ill-defined military commitments abroad. So did the clear limits he set on U.S. military involvement in the Libya intervention.