Beyond Obama’s foreign futility

President Barack Obama during a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the opening day of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 2. Earlier Monday, Obama and Putin spoke bluntly before the General Assembly, essentially blaming each other for the war in Syria. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

President Barack Obama has produced a generally timid foreign policy at best — and a dangerous pattern of American retreat at worst. Alarming evidence of the latter assessment came into sharper focus Monday as the presidents of Russia and the United States delivered conflicting speeches to the United Nations General Assembly.

Simply put, Vladimir Putin has outflanked Mr. Obama in Syria. He has established a significant Russian military presence there. He also has filled the diplomatic void left by the lack of U.S. resolve on the bloody Syrian civil war.

But regardless of what you think of President Obama’s performance on the global scene, there’s no disputing this reality:

In fewer than 16 months, Americans will swear in a new president. And as the candidates to replace President Obama debate crucial questions, they should offer specific answers on how, if elected, they would deal with Mr. Putin, international terrorism, Iran, China and numerous other international challenges.

They also should offer a general perspective on how they would use U.S. diplomatic — and if needed, military — power to advance national security and international harmony.

Of course, talking tough is much easier when you’re not the commander in chief who has to back it up by sending Americans into harm’s way.

And in fairness to Mr. Obama, he inherited some heavy foreign-policy burdens from President George W. Bush.

Nevertheless, failing to back up tough talk intensifies peril by projecting American weakness.

Meanwhile, Presidents Obama and Putin agree that the Islamic State must be defeated in Syria and elsewhere. But they don’t agree on the future of Syria’s Assad regime. Mr. Putin now holds the upper hand in that clash of wills.

His edge was grimly evident Monday during both presidents’ speeches at the U.N. Mr. Putin insisted that the brutal Assad government remain in control after the rebels, including ISIS, are defeated. He even invoked the “Yalta system,” referencing the World War II Allied nations’ agreement that ultimately gave the Soviet Union dominion over most of Eastern Europe for more than four decades after the defeat of Nazi Germany.

President Obama persuasively countered by pointing out that President Assad “drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children.”

He correctly rejected Mr. Putin’s stubborn alliance with that mass-murdering dictator, explaining:

“Yes, realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out ISIL. But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild.”

Mr. Obama’s morally right about that long-suffering land.

But at this diminished point in his presidency, his practical leverage on this front is minimal. So is his credibility on Syria.

After all, President Obama drew a figurative “red line” in 2012, serving notice to Mr. Assad that if he crossed it by using chemical weapons, he would be ousted.

Then after the Syrian president used those weapons a year later, Mr. Obama didn’t follow through on his warning.

And while the president hails last month’s nuclear agreement with Iran — brokered with Mr. Putin’s help — as a major achievement, there’s considerable cause for concern about that deal. Iran is the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism. Its leaders persist in their vows to destroy Israel. That hardly warrants trusting them in an accord that gives them ample future leeway to continue their pursuit of a nuclear arsenal

Again, at this late date in President Obama’s second term, those vying to replace him must do more than assess his foreign-policy record.

They must propose realistic solutions to the foreign-policy problems our next president will inherit from him.