Obama needs to learn the virtues of 'big stick' diplomacy

When President Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, even he was surprised. Mr. Obama's winning of the prize was rightly controversial — after nine months in office it was difficult to determine what exactly had warranted it — but he wasn't the first U.S. president to win the award nor was he the first for whom the honor struck many as odd.

Theodore Roosevelt, swaggering Rough Rider, big game hunter and jungle explorer — a man who was shot by a would-be assassin on his way to a campaign event and decided to continue on and deliver the 80 minute speech with a bullet lodged in his chest — won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his role in negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. The distinction seemed a bit out of place for a man who lived by the motto "speak softly and carry a big stick."


The Nobel Peace Prize and the presidency seem to be the only significant similarities between Mr. Obama and Roosevelt. Our current president hasn't found a big stick, and it looks increasingly unlikely that he ever will. Even in Libya, where he was dragged into action by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other advisers, the American president led from behind France, a scenario that just a few years earlier Hollywood wouldn't even have accepted as plausible.

This is not to suggest that we should return to the George W. Bush years of reckless stick swinging, the specter of which is certainly playing a role in Mr. Obama's hesitation to intervene militarily in conflicts such as Syria. But President Obama has failed to understand the key to big stick foreign policy: When your stick is big enough and the bad guys know you'll use it, you won't have to.


This administration has so far forfeited that power of deterrence. Even with $1.5 billion a year in aid to Egypt as leverage, the White House couldn't dissuade that nation's military from overthrowing a democratically elected president and killing over 1,000 of its own citizens. Even with Libya as an example of what America could do, President Bashar Assad defiantly continues the massacre in Syria, looking Mr. Obama straight in the eye as he brazenly steps over the American president's "red line" on the use of chemical weapons.

In less than four years, the Obama administration will be no more, and the next president will need to pick up the pieces left behind by this president's foreign policy and try to put it all back together again. It will be a daunting task to restore America's position in the world, to find our big stick, dust it off, and point it squarely at regimes like Syria, Iran and North Korea, and their backers Russia and China.

We will rise to the challenge, as we always have. Our next president will need to muster such swagger that he'll draw comparisons to Ronald Reagan after Jimmy Carter, and it won't matter if that president is Hillary Clinton or Chris Christie or someone else, nor will it matter what foreign policy he or she campaigned on because he or she will have no choice about what needs to be done. America's leadership in world affairs will need to be restored in the face of dictators and despots thumbing their noses at the world's only superpower, and their benefactors — like Russia — will need to be put in their place as well.

How much of a mess is left for the next president to clean up depends on how Congress votes in response to our president's red line being crossed in Syria. Our adversaries are watching.

Matthew VanDyke, a Maryland native, fought alongside the Libyan resistance and spent six months as a prisoner of war. He recently completed a film about the Syiran civil war, "Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution," and plans to return there in October. His email is