Demonstrators hold a placard and wave Syrian opposition flags as they protest against Russia's military operation in Syria in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, October 17, 2015. 
Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

When it comes to foreign policy, U.S. President Obama’s critics have long accused him of being weak, indecisive, and naive. “Restoring resolve” to the Oval Office was a Republican theme in 2012, and it remains one among the 2016 GOP contenders. This narrative has now spread beyond Obama’s partisan opponents: many accuse Washington of responding with insufficient strength to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support of the insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Syria, which seeks to support Russia’s longtime ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leaves the United States looking flatfooted. To some, it also highlights Washington’s waning power.

In short, Obama’s apparent restraint appears irresolute, whereas Putin comes across as a strong, decisive master strategist who exploits Obama’s weakness and keeps Washington off balance. The Economist declares that “Putin dares, Obama dithers,” and wishes

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  • ALEXANDER COOLEY is Director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University and a Professor of Political Science at Barnard College.

  • DAN NEXON is an Associate Professor in the School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University.
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