June 2, 2023

Smart versus dumb, not strong versus weak

1 May 2014

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Challenged by a Fox News reporter to respond to critics who say his foreign policy doctrine “is weakness,” President Obama responded during a press conference in The Philippines with a pointed defense of his handling of the Ukraine crisis and the ongoing civil war in Syria. He noted that typically such criticism is directed at the failure to use military force, and he expressed puzzlement at the eagerness in some quarters for military action “after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget. . . . And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”

Obama won election in 2008 because he didn’t support the invasion of Iraq, and on a promise to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has kept that promise, and he has kept America out of additional wars. Imagine if Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had won the ’08 election, how many military interventions would he have taken the country into? Perhaps his rhetoric as a U.S. senator is more hawkish than it would have been as president; we’ll never know, but if we take McCain at his word, the U.S. military would be in Syria and probably headed for Ukraine, if not Crimea.

Obama said he challenges his critics to tell him what they would do, and that they generally come up short in citing specific steps they would take that he hasn’t already taken. What these armchair generals apparently miss is the swagger that previous presidents brought to their pronouncements, a swagger learned on a movie set like Ronald Reagan or a swagger that is purely stylistic in the case of George W. Bush.  Neither of those presidents, by the way, imposed sanctions against the then Soviet Union or Russia when leaders misbehaved on their watch.

Obama is ratcheting up economic sanctions against Russia and President Putin and the oligarchs who run that country. He is doing it with the cooperation of the European Union, and he is doing it gradually, leaving room for an escape hatch along the way if Putin chooses to take it. This is smart diplomacy, and faulting it for not being tough enough misses the point.

There are always people ready to say a president isn’t tough enough, and Obama is right to call them out on it, and ask what they would do instead.  President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis remains the textbook example of a commander in chief staring down simple-solution hawks, trusting his own instincts and his most thoughtful advisors, and daring to let the confrontation over the Soviet Union’s placement of missiles in Cuba play out diplomatically and peaceably.

General Curtis LeMay, Air Force chief of staff during the Kennedy administration, was furious with the president for holding back on U.S. military power. He was ready to invade Cuba and risk nuclear war with the Soviet Union. “Bombs away” LeMay became his moniker, and in 1968, he ran with segregationist Governor George Wallace of Alabama on the American Independent ticket for vice-president.

LeMay was wrong in his assessment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his politics were off the charts as well. His is a cautionary tale. We should retire the children’s playground comparison of strong versus weak, and replace it with smart versus dumb, as in smart sanctions versus dumb inflammatory rhetoric. Obama is navigating a complicated and complex world and he can’t ban Vladimir Putin from the world stage the way NBA commissioner Adam Silver did with Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, banning him for life from attending the team’s games. Critics shouldn’t equate an NBA commissioner’s action, however bold and brave, with the measured steps of a president in the midst of a showdown with unforeseen consequences for millions of people.

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© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.


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