Tony Abbott was presented with foreign policy problems from Washington, Jakarta and Port Moresby this week. Luckily for him, in the short term they are all small problems. But they offer many clues about the shape of things to come.
Washington could have been a more serious problem for Abbott. A few weeks ago Barack Obama looked as though he was heading for serious military intervention in Syria. He won the enthusiastic support of Kevin Rudd for this. Some sections of official Canberra began to wonder whether Australia couldn't make a contribution, at least a token contribution via a naval ship in the Gulf, to some coordinated US effort.
This would have been a bad call, and unnecessary, as the Americans didn't need it and would never have asked for it unless we asked to be asked, so to speak. And almost certainly military effort in Syria would be folly.
Now, however, Obama has completely backtracked.
You would have to be an ASIO cryptographer of the highest order to discern any coherent strategy in Obama's wildly changing and confusingly contradictory positions. Obama says he must strike Syria because it used chemical weapons against its citizens and because he said he would do so. But wait! He mustn't do so unless he can get UN Security Council approval. No chance of that. So then he must get congressional approval, although he has abundant executive authority to take such action without congress. In any event, congress would say no. But wait! Obama's prolix Secretary of State John Kerry said there would be no need for a strike after all if Syria would surrender its chemical weapons. Hey presto! Syria will do just that, with Russian help, over some unspecified period of months or years. And if you believe that, Virginia ...
So now, Obama says, America must wait and see that this process is for real. And if it's not, Obama promises a strike that will be "more than a pinprick" though nothing that would threaten Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's hold on power, while Kerry describes the proposed strike as "unbelievably small".
If anything, Obama now seems to be guaranteeing Assad's tenure. He has been outplayed by Russian President Vladimir Putin at every point in this fiasco.
Militarily, there is nothing Obama can do now about chemical weapons. No doubt these weapons now are stored where the US cannot hit them - the basements of hospitals and schools - or dare not hit them for fear of releasing chemical agents.
A bigger strike - on Assad's air defences, landing strips, helicopters - looks more like attempted regime change, and Obama is certainly not going to be responsible for that.
Serious strategic analysts such as Peter Jennings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute conclude "it's difficult to see how the Obama administration could have handled this situation more amateurishly".
Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, not to be confused with a serious analyst of any kind but a good guide to zeitgeist opinion, remarks: "Obama's flip-flopping, ambivalent leadership led him to the exact place he never wanted to be."
What should Abbott do about all this? Rudd's earlier hyper-ventilating enthusiasm now looks foolish. He strongly backed a US position the Americans abandoned a minute after Rudd backed it. Abbott's cautious words about the difficulty of taking any effective action in Syria now look prescient. However, the situation still poses some potential dangers for Abbott.
Wisdom resides in two insights. First, Australia is the smallest of bit players in Syria. Don't try to take any lead on this issue. Don't get out in front in any direction. Second, though Obama's incompetence here is mind-boggling, the Americans still have good intentions, are our fundamental ally and still by far the most important positive force for global good.