'We are extremely disappointed," the White House press secretary said after Moscow granted asylum to fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden. A nice understatement. Washington is now looking at the greatest counterintelligence failure since the Rosenbergs betrayed nuclear know-how to Stalin some 60 years ago. Now the Russians have Mr. Snowden's hard disks to unearth more U.S. secrets than could be stolen by a battalion of spies.
President Vladimir Putin has it in his hands to endlessly embarrass the U.S. by releasing choice bits and pieces from the Snowden trove, or to threaten to do so to keep Washington on its best behavior. After this slap, "extremely disappointed" is the diplomatic equivalent of pouting—unbecoming to a great power.
Why did Mr. Putin decide to thumb his nose at the U.S. after playing cat-and-mouse for six weeks? Easy—because he could. He has taken the measure of Barack Obama, concluding that there isn't much there there, to paraphrase the president on the State Department's emails about Benghazi.
The Russian leader has been checking off the weak spots since Mr. Obama's 2009 inauguration—in disbelief at first, no doubt, then with growing brashness. It started with the Cairo speech in June of that year, where Mr. Obama made nice to the Islamic Middle East, Iran included. A few months later came the White House cave-in on a Europe-based antimissile system the Russians had vehemently opposed. This was part of the celebrated "reset"—but Moscow got to pocket something for nothing, a no-no in great-power politics.
The Kremlin has also noticed how Mr. Obama has basically scotched the military option against Iran's nuclear-arms program. So has the Khamenei regime in Tehran, which keeps enticing Washington with talks resembling a minuet: bow, circle, return to the starting point. In Libya, the U.S. was "leading from behind," in Syria, not at all. Cutting the defense budget has been the order of the day, with or without the sequester.
So if you're Vladimir Putin, why not probe more deeply?
Consider the gauntlets flung down by Russia earlier this year. One is the delivery of sophisticated Yakhont antiship missiles to the Assad regime in Syria. Hard to detect and even harder to destroy, these missiles would pose a serious threat to U.S. naval forces if the weapons were ever deployed to the eastern Mediterranean. Israel regarded the danger sufficient to level a storage site in Syria's port city of Latakia on July 5.
Moscow keeps denying that it has delivered the mobile S-300 air defense system to Assad. The up-to-date version, the S-300PMU-2, would be a game-changer, engaging planes at all altitudes, as well as cruise missiles. Yes, the U.S. Air Force could take them out—but it won't be the kind of easy bombing campaign that helped rout Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
Also in the spring, the Russians dispatched about a dozen warships to the eastern Mediterranean, according to press reports. This was a classic, 19th-century show of force to show resolve and to deter. If the U.S. actually did move against Assad, it would have to put serious sea power in the area. And risk a naval clash with Russia just to topple a bad guy? Anyway, the Sixth Fleet that used to patrol the Mediterranean went long ago, except for a single command ship.
The Kremlin's message: We shall protect our Syrian asset, the Assad regime. And the Russians have plenty of battle-hardened company: Hezbollah on the ground, Iran nearby. While Secretary of State John Kerry is investing in a sideshow—the Israeli-Palestinian peace—Moscow and Tehran are securing a foothold on the Mediterranean. Preventing Russia from reinserting itself in the Middle East has been a top American priority since the 1970s.
Mr. Obama's America seems to be withdrawing from the great-power table in favor of "nation-building at home," as the president keeps repeating. In his May speech at National Defense University, Mr. Obama vowed to end the war on terror and to curtail drone strikes, America's best weapon in an age of "asymmetric warfare." He means it. Last week, Mr. Kerry promised to end drone attacks in Pakistan "very, very soon."
Terror International will not junk its suicide vests in return. The world is being treated to a first in the history of great-power politics. Traditionally, the might of nations was hemmed in by others in an endless game of pressure and counter-pressure. Now, the reigning superpower is proposing to neutralize itself—no foes needed. The nation that invented containment in the Cold War is now playing with self-containment.
So don't blame Mr. Putin for what ambitious powers always do, which is to probe their rivals' positions on the periphery—as Beijing is doing in the war of nerves over some tiny islands in the South China Sea. America is turning into a huge medium-power, like an XXL France—a nation that still shows some great-power reflexes as in nearby Libya and Mali, but cannot take care of global business. When the Europeans ran out of ammunition in Libya, the U.S. stepped in. But if America shrugs off global responsibility, nobody else will shoulder it.
Mr. Obama's central problem is philosophical. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does the state system. The president apparently believes that the U.S. can safely retract because giants no longer roam the earth. Alas, the chickens of indifference always come home to roost as birds of prey. In the 1930s, the coldblooded opportunists were Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. In our time, it is second-rate powers like Russia and Iran, and non-nations like Hezbollah, that are taking on the United States, and they do so because they can.
Their calculus should give pause to Mr. Obama, who is routinely compared to Jimmy Carter. But Mr. Carter learned a lot faster. In May 1977, he had pronounced America "free of that inordinate fear of communism." After the Soviet lunge into Afghanistan in December 1979, he noted wistfully: "This action . . . has made a more dramatic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets' ultimate goals are than anything they've done in the previous time I've been in office."
It took Jimmy Carter only three years to grasp the cruel game of nations. And what it takes to be the "indispensable nation," a term coined by another Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Mr. Obama seems to have forgotten that he used exactly the same words a year ago: "America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs." There is no other.
Mr. Joffe teaches U.S. foreign policy at Stanford University, where he is also a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Institute for International Studies. His book "The Myth of America's Decline" will be published by Norton in the fall.