Each president brings his own unique preconceptions to the job. Post-depression, FDR believed the American people deserved a "New Deal." John Kennedy felt Americans would willingly "pay any price" to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world. Ronald Reagan thought a strong national defense would bring the "evil empire" to its knees. A post-9/11 George W. Bush saw radical Islam as the single greatest threat to western-style democracy.
As a candidate and as president, Barack Obama, too, has been quite clear about the fundamentals of his foreign policy — particularly America's approach to the world's dictators and assorted miscreants. He would sit down and talk with them "without preconditions." A new era of diplomatic engagement would emerge. An acquiescent America would generate a resurgence of good will among Muslim nations. Mr. Obama would convince the Israeli occupiers that "land for peace" could be achieved even if the Palestinians continued to oppose the very existence of the Jewish state. He would "restart" a bilateral relationship with the former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin. And all this would be made possible because the primary cause of America's negative image around the world — George W. Bush — would no longer be in charge.
This president truly believed his considerable force of personality would bring the world's troublemakers to task. And why not? A fawning media was advertising the arrival of a "post-partisan president" capable of uniting a divided America and improving our (his) reputation around the world. Certainly the awarding of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Obama did nothing to discourage these lofty expectations.
Yet bad actors have a way of spoiling even the most heartfelt attempts at high rhetoric and good deeds. And today's bad actors are deep into the process of dissolving the president's primary assumptions.
Clinton administration press secretary George Stephanopoulos once famously declared that "words are actions" for President Clinton. But six years into the Obama era, seemingly endless (and empty diplomatic) assurances lack the muscle that would otherwise make them count.
The latest shenanigans in Ukraine offer a stark example. Here, the president's weak sanctions and dismissive reference to Russia as a "regional" power ring hollow as Mr. Putin proceeds to dismantle eastern Ukraine one ZIP code at a time. A mocking response to U.S. and western military actions only further makes the point.
Similarly, Mr. Obama's constant brow beating of Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative government in Israel has generated no good will with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who refuses to recognize any parcel of Israel as a legitimate Jewish state. Now, Mr. Abbas has agreed to form a unity government with terrorist-affiliated Hamas. Neither has tough talk dissuaded the rogue nuclear ambitions of Iran, where the Holocaust-denying Ayatollah Khamenei and alleged "moderate president" Hasan Rouhani have negotiated a bomb-making deal with the West on a slower timeframe — to the utter consternation of Israel, its moderate Arab neighbors and many members of the United States Congress.
Perhaps the most glaring example of ostensibly serious but ultimately meaningless words is the now infamous "red line" regarding Syria's use of chemical weapons against insurgent rebels. Repeated instances of chemical gas attacks against his own people has proven a consequence-less act for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Worse, the unserious threats morphed into an embarrassing incident when Secretary of State John Kerry stated that regardless of any violation, a U.S. military response would be "unbelievably small" and "limited."
So, what do Messrs. Putin, Abbas, Assad and Rouhani have in common (besides an utter disregard for western style human rights and democracy)? Well, they fully understand that mere words are not actions. And that mere words that lack credibility do not generate respect — or fear.
One quality that distinguishes a dynamic leader is the ability to change course (and preconceptions) midstream when it becomes clear that what you are doing is simply not working. But can a president prone to conflict avoidance recognize that his moral entreaties to bad people are simply ineffective? That his vast reservoir of charisma is lost on tin horn dictators and murderous autocrats willing to do anything to preserve their power? I'll take the "under," as they say in Vegas. It took years for Mr. Obama to fully admit that "Obamacare" might have problems. What do you think it will take to get him to see that Mr. Putin and his fellow bullies might be playing him for the fool?
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" and "America: Hope for Change" — books about national politics. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.