The Bush Administration tried soft power over and over again, only to find that old fashioned hard power is what actually gets things done. Anyone who remembers Colin Powell making his pitiful rounds at the UN remembers that. And it's no real surprise, because while soft power may be helpful for soliciting handshakes, long term alliances are sustained by at least one of the partners demonstrating his ability to carry his own weight, act forcefully and punish betrayals of the alliance. Even Barack Obama who has championed soft power toward Iran and the Taliban, flipped over to the old fashioned kind of power when it came to FOX News. Of course all it took to make Obama abandon the mantra of soft power was for him to confront a situation that unlike Iran and the War on Terror, he considered to be a genuine crisis... a cable news network not beholden to his agenda.
Soft power is perfectly fine if you're running for office while trying to be as non-threatening as possible. But real leadership requires making the hard decisions no one else will, and you can only pass the buck so often to the Pentagon or Joe Biden's office, before it becomes clear that you don't have a foreign policy, above and beyond simultaneously running for office in every country in the world.
Democracy may be a popularity contest, but foreign affairs aren't, and soft power is premised on D.C. rules, the notion that if you hand out enough pork, you'll win more allies. But handing out pork to the Taliban, just insures you'll be facing well fed Taliban come next spring. If an honest politician is a politician that stays bought, then tribal cultures who are always looking to cut deals three different ways, have no honest politicians. Paying an insurgent to go home, while the Taliban pays that same insurgent to fight, only creates a chaotic battlefield in which it becomes impossible to know on who's side anyone is anymore.
The key words in foreign affairs are what's in it for me. A payoff is the cheapest and least worthwhile way to gain an ally, because all you gain is an ally for sale to anyone who can make a higher bid, who has no loyalty whatsoever, and will sell you out when the moment is right. Mutual interests are a much stronger bond, but they require actual mutual interests based on substantive agendas, rather than the virtual mutual interests based on some deluded notion that assorted third world dictatorships have the same wishes for peace and beliefs in a better future that we do. Finally there need to be negative consequences, whether stemming directly from us or indirectly from what will occur if the course of action we propose is not followed.
Soft power as practiced by Obama however is all carrot and no stick, letting our enemies munch away on the carrot, while we promise never to let a stick touch our hands. If you talk enough of peace to the wrong people, it becomes indistinguishable from surrender. If you adopt a foreign policy whose chief virtue is that it allows you to make speeches, while kicking over all the military decisions to the military, while denying them the support they need to implement those decisions-- then you've created an environment in which you will insure that they will fail, while your public image will succeed. At least until the consequences of your ego and incompetence moves the country from the Chamberlainian mode, back to the Churchillian.
The key problem with Obama's plan for Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan is that he has no plan except to avoid becoming entangled with any of them in order to shift blame for the coming disasters on someone else's head. Generals often end up with the responsibility for implementing political decisions that make no sense in relation to the facts on the ground. Obama's political decision on the War on Terror can be best summed up as, "Keep busy, but don't involve me in any of it, or ask me for anything." A rule that General McChrystal openly broke thereby throwing the Afghanistan debate into the public arena, and forcing the White House to try and defend their non-policy, even if the only soldiers they can find to do it are bravely manning their blackberries and pencil sharpeners in Joe Biden's office.
Embracing soft power is a handy way to act busy without accomplishing anything or risking much of anything. The Clinton Administration used soft power to go after Al Queda. The Bush Administration used bombs and bullets. Now we've switched back to a soft power breakfast buffet of waffles with a hearty serving of appeasement and pork, topped off with Coalition soldiers dying because their rules of engagement now favor the Taliban, because one side was paying off the Taliban without the other knowing about it, or because the Taliban are certain that their victory is near and have become bolder than ever.
Soft power means never having to be sure of anything, never having to do anything and never having to say sorry to the people who die because of your ineptness and indecisiveness. Isn't soft power wonderful?