Concerned as Americans understandably are about domestic economy, developments on the international front ominously point to dangerous times for the United States and its allies and friends. For the three great threats from Russia, China and Islamist terrorism are growing daily because of President Obama's withdrawal from the responsibilities that our leadership of the free world entails.
Russia has everyone's attention now because of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, a resort community near the Black Sea. But impressive displays of artistic talent there cannot disguise the fact that Russia is a third-world country with first-world ambitions that can only be financed by ruthless exploitation of its people and the people of the neighboring nations.
Hope that the collapse of Soviet Communism would be followed by democratic capitalism, while faint, were given the coup de grace when ex-KGB official Vladimir Putin became president of Russia, first in 1999, and again in 2012. The criminals who profited from looting communist style under the old regime are now plundering their subjects in an old-fashioned autocracy.
Neither regime is capable, as free commercial republics are, of genuine prosperity, so they must systematically loot from abroad. As the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in his work "Politics," there are only two ways to attain access to the world's goods, by trade or by robbery. That is why Russia has suborned Georgia in the past, Ukraine in the present, and the Caucasus region seemingly never, owing to Islamist terrorism.
There can be no doubt that Putin, like his Soviet predecessors, has his eye on the "near abroad," and indeed expansion and domination as far as the nation's resources can support them. When he first came to power, this man, who loves to be photographed bare-chested, declared that the collapse of the Soviet empire was "the greatest geo-political disaster of the 20th century."
President Obama has done nothing to counter the Russian despot, beginning with its famous "reset" of relations with that country in 2009. He has proposed unilateral cuts in American nuclear capability, backed off from commitments of anti-ballistic missiles in Poland and Czech Republic against Iranian strikes on Europe, and promised "greater flexibility" to place-holding Russian President Dmitri Medvedev after his (Obama's) re-election in 2008.
It is no better in the Far East. On the surface, it appeared that Obama was taking the increasing assertiveness of Communist China seriously by refocusing American foreign policy on developments on the East Asian mainland and in the Western Pacific. But evidence mounts daily that this maneuver was designed to distract our attention from the Administration's virtual abandonment of restraining Islamist terrorism.
But as the Chinese increase their fleet of aircraft carriers and claim international waters to the southeast as their own territory, our fleet is declining and we are not resisting China's encroachment beyond its borders. The common thread in our relations with the only serious threats to world order is abandonment of any trace of what Obama regarded as American arrogance and even imperialism. This slander against America, as he seeks to "transform" it, is belied by the incredible sacrifices our nation has made for the sake of millions of people in Europe and Asia in two world wars, regional wars in Korea and Vietnam, and 40 years of cold war.
Then there is the Middle East. We abandoned Iraq to its present fate by not maintaining a credible military presence in the aftermath of the war, and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates only confirmed what many had already figured out, namely, that President Obama's commitment to the "surge" he authorized in the so-called "good war" (as opposed to the "bad war" in Iraq) was tepid at best.
Obama's recent declaration that our combat role will cease this year in the absence of any actual end to hostilities, not to mention, victory over al-Qaeda or the Taliban, is yet another indication of his ambivalence towards our international responsibilities.
As the siren song of American isolationism is being heard from the libertarian Right as well as the pacifistic Left, it is well to remember the lessons we learned from the Second World War. Britain and France took Adolph Hitler's peaceful claims at face value at Munich in 1938, only to see them totally discredited by his takeovers of Austria and Czechoslovakia and his invasion of Poland.
And America suffered a great blow at Pearl Harbor, a surprise Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, following a decade of American isolationism that castigated European nations indiscriminately and ignored the growing imperial Japanese threat.
The cost of American leadership in the world may be steep in terms of blood and treasure, but the head-in-the-sand alternative is far worse. We can avoid, as Winston Churchill said about World War II, a "needless war" only if we keep our defenses up and our judgment clear.
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Take Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org