"You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
For many conservatives, I would guess for many Americans in uniform, this was the signature phrase in Barack Obama's inaugural. The Yes-We-Can man is no longer a candidate for office or a president-elect, but now commander-in-chief during times of trial in a most uncertain moment. For it is not our current economic troubles that pose the most profound question for President Obama, it is the larger geopolitical challenges to America's position in the world. This is not a new era of responsibility; the security responsibilities of the United States have been accumulating are as large and lasting as any of the legacies cited in the inaugural address.
The change from George Bush to Barack Obama is the first change of party in the White House since 9/11. And indeed, many Democrats seem still to be a state of denial about the realities of the modern world, blaming all its unpleasantnesses on Bush. A year ago, Obama was one of them.
Yet from the moment he secured the Democratic Party nomination, the new president increasingly has tempered his views. It was as if he began then to contemplate what his presidential responsibilities would be, to appreciate the nature of what Donald Rumsfeld rightly called the "long, hard slog" in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the greater Middle East, anticipate the dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon -- which is almost sure to happen on Obama's watch -- and grasp the nature of the rise of China as a global great power. Though there is a world-weariness that stretches across party lines, the strongest tug to "come home America" still comes from the Left. Barack Obama's resolve to defeat the enemy is a break with recent Democratic habit.
But there are questions of means as well as ends. New fashions for "soft power" and "smart power" can be dangerous if they are taken as a complete substitute for hard power and, particularly, military strength. Part of the reason George Bush was so disturbing to the rest of the world, and especially to Europeans, was that he pointed out inconvenient truths. Estranged allies and potential may be more willing to say nice things about Barack Obama -- and the simple fact of his election and presidency reflects the urgent power of the American example to the world - but it is less likely that they will take the difficult steps needed to help police the planet. There are many stakeholders in the American-led international order, but precious few of them show signs of accepting any greater responsibility for preserving it. President Obama will, like his predecessor, often find it lonely at the top.
"You cannot outlast us." Obama has made a conscious attempt to connect his presidency to that of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln sent Ulysses S. Grant back to do battle with Robert E. Lee with the admonition to "[h]old on with a bulldog grip, and choke and chew as much as possible." Let us hope that our 44th president continues to channel the 16th president, both in healing our domestic wounds and in relentless pursuit of the defeat or our foes.
Tom Donnelly is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.