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FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: But first here’s my take. Let me read you something from a well-known analyst of American foreign policy. He wrote, “Because of unsure and indecisive leadership in the field of foreign policy, questions have been raised on all sides.” The right added that the administration is, “plagued by a Hamlet-like psychosis which seems to paralyze it every time decisive action is required.”

Is this one of the many recent critiques of Barack Obama’s foreign policy? Actually, it is Richard Nixon writing about President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Criticizing presidents for weakness is a standard trope in Washington because the world is a messy place, and when bad things happen, Washington and the president can easily be blamed for them. But to determine what America and Obama should be doing, let’s first try to understand the nature of the world and the dangers within it. From 1947 until 1990, the United States faced a mortal threat, an enemy that was strategic, political, military and ideological. Washington had to keep together an alliance that faced up to the foe and persuade countries in the middle not to give in. This meant that concerns about resolve and credibility were paramount. But the world today looks very different, far more peaceful and stable than at any point in several centuries.

The United States faces no enemy anywhere on the scale of Soviet Russia. America’s military spending is about that of the next 14 countries combined, most of which are treaty allies of Washington.

The countries that have been aggressive or acted as Washington’s adversaries are facing a tough environment. Look at Russia, China and Iran. In this context, what is needed from Washington is not another heroic exertion of American military power but rather a sustained effort to engage with allies, isolate enemies, support free markets and Democratic values and push these positive trends forward.

The Obama administration is, in fact, deeply internationalist, building on alliances in Europe and Asia, working with institutions like the IMF and U.N., isolating adversaries and strengthening the international order that has proved so beneficial to the United States and the world since 1945.

All the while it has fought al Qaeda and its allies ferociously. But the administration has been disciplined about the use of force and understandably so. An America that exaggerates threats, overreacts to problems and intervenes unilaterally would produce the very damage to its credibility that people are worried about.

After all, just six years ago, America’s closest allies were distancing themselves from Washington because it was seen as aggressive, expansionist and militaristic.

Obama is battling a knee-jerk sentiment in Washington that the only kind of international leadership that means anything is the use of military force.

“Just because we have the best hammer does not mean every problem is a nail,” he said in his speech at West Point. A similar sentiment was expressed in the farewell address of President Eisenhower, a strong leader who refused to intervene in the Suez crisis, the French collapse in Vietnam, two Taiwan Straits confrontations and the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

At the time many critics blasted the president for his passivity and wished that he would be more interventionist. A Democratic Advisory Council headed by Dean Acheson called Eisenhower’s foreign policy, quote, “weak, vacillating and tardy.” But Eisenhower kept his powder dry, confident that force was not the only way to show strength. He told his speechwriter, I’ll tell you what leadership is. It’s persuasion and conciliation and education and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only kind of leadership I know or believe in or will practice.”