Conservative con and I
A weak foreign policy narrative
Romney falls back on an obsolete charge
|Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter (Getty photo / September 5, 2012)|
On Aug. 31, 1983, a South Korean airliner flying from New York to Seoul drifted off course and entered Soviet airspace. After tracking the civilian plane for more than two hours, Soviet fighter pilots were told to shoot it down. They did, killing 269 people, including 60 Americans. It was one of the most shocking atrocities of the Cold War.
It occurred during the first term of perhaps the most staunchly anti-communist president America has ever had, Ronald Reagan, an advocate of robust military power. And how did Reagan respond? He called it a “crime against humanity,” and then, um, postponed some cultural exchanges with the Soviets.
Some of his admirers were aghast at this display, as Steven Hayward notes in his 2009 book, “The Age of Reagan.” New York Times columnist William Safire said Reagan “has acted more pusillanimously than Jimmy Carter.” Polls showed most Americans thought he had done too little, prompting the president to ask, “Short of going to war, what would they have us do?”
Conservatives invariably claim that any show of weakness emboldens aggressors and endangers peace. But just six years later, the Soviet empire collapsed. By 1991, the Soviet Union was gone. Maybe in his restraint, which looked disgraceful at the time, Reagan was acting wisely.
Barack Obama has never done anything that could compare to Reagan’s limp response to this wanton slaughter of innocents. But conservatives with short memories regard Obama as the most feeble, weak-kneed president since … well, since Jimmy Carter.
They are employing a narrative that has worked for them at least since the Carter era: Weakness breeds aggression, and strength deters it. Democrats are weak, and Republicans are strong. When anything goes wrong overseas under a Democratic president, it’s because no one respects or fears him. Otherwise it wouldn’t happen.
Of course, Democrats used to have great success depicting Republicans as the party of Herbert Hoover, whom they blamed for the Great Depression. But they had to give that up after Reagan presided over an economic boom. Reality no longer supported the narrative. Voters knew better.
That’s the GOP’s problem with Obama. He expanded the war in Afghanistan, used U.S. air power to topple Moammar Gadhafi, and rained drone missiles on terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Hmm. Was there something else? Oh, right! He killed Osama bin Laden.
Americans seem to have noticed. In the latest CNN/ORC International poll, Americans trust Obama more than Mitt Romney on foreign policy by 54 percent to 42 percent.
But in the aftermath of the violent protests this past week, Romney’s campaign reverted to type. “It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values,” he said. His foreign policy adviser, Richard Williamson, insisted the demonstrations erupted because “the respect for America has gone down, there’s not a sense of American resolve.”
Really? So why was there a wave of fierce anti-American protests across the Middle East in 2003, as President George W. Bush was preparing to invade Iraq? The State Department was so alarmed it advised Americans to avoid 17 countries across the region and beyond.
Our diplomats have nothing to fear when we’re strong? Under Bush, there were violent attacks on American embassies in Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, India and Turkey. A U.S. diplomat was assassinated in Sudan. Another was murdered in Pakistan.
Those are not proof that Bush was weak or even wrong in his foreign policy. They are proof that the president of the United States is not the Lord of the Universe. Even if he does everything right, nasty developments will ensue.
Certainly they did under Reagan. A U.S. Army major carrying out routine monitoring in East Germany, as allowed under a U.S.-Soviet agreement, was shot to death by a Soviet sentry. An American reporter was arrested on phony espionage charges in Moscow, forcing Reagan to negotiate to get him released. A barracks in Beirut was blown up, killing 241 American military personnel.
But somehow, these episodes did not discredit Reagan among conservatives or the broader public. The embassy attacks likewise won’t trump all the other things Obama has done.
The claim that the GOP represents strength against a president who is fatally weak and uncertain has worked for Republicans before. If the Democrats ever nominate Jimmy Carter, it might work again.
Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune’s editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/chapman.
Posted By Kevin Baron, Gordon Lubold Friday, September 14, 2012 – 9:28 PM Share
With anti-American demonstrations spreading across the Middle East and North Africa, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Foreign Policy‘s National Security channel on Friday evening that the United States is positioning military forces so that it can respond to unrest in as many as 17 or 18 places that the Pentagon is “paying particular attention to.” But he cautioned against writing off the region’s recent moves toward democracy. “[O]ne demonstration of extremists, any more than a Ku Klux Klan demonstration in the United States, is not necessarily reflective of what the rest of the country feels,” he said.
In an exclusive interview in his Pentagon office, Panetta also dismissed the week’s unusually public debate between U.S. and Israeli leaders over whether the allies should identify “red lines” in Iran’s nuclear program that would trigger military action.
“The fact is, look, presidents of the United States, prime ministers of Israel or any other country — leaders of these countries don’t have, you know, a bunch of little red lines that determine their decisions,” he said. “What they have are facts that are presented to them about what a country is up to, and then they weigh what kind of action is needed to be taken in order to deal with that situation. I mean, that’s the real world. Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to try to put people in a corner.”
Panetta’s comments were his first, publicly, since protests first erupted in Cairo and Libya, during which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, two former Navy SEALs, and a State Department worker were killed. The Middle East, Panetta argued, is going through “convulsions” after its momentous change in leadership since the eruption of the Arab awakening early last year, on which al-Qaeda and other extremists are trying capitalize, but they do not necessarily reflect a change in regional security.
A U.S. defense official later told Foreign Policy that the Pentagon was discussing, but had not decided, late Friday whether to send a third platoon of 50 anti-terrorism Marines to protect the embassy in Sudan, to follow the roughly 100 Marines that already have landed in Tripoli and Yemen.
“We have to be prepared in the event that these demonstrations get out of control,” Panetta said of the military.
Panetta did not say what he believed was behind the attack on the U.S. representative office in Benghazi, but he claimed the anti-Islam movie was at the heart of other demonstrations. “It’s something that’s under assessment and under investigation, to determine just exactly what happened here,” he said.
Panetta expressed concern that the fall of dictators across the Middle East has left a void for extremist elements to strike from “positions of weakness.”
He acknowledged that al-Qaeda had become seemingly more active in places like Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and across North Africa. But the secretary denied any change from his statement last year that al-Qaeda was nearing “strategic defeat,” explaining that he meant the original core elements of the group, not its extensions across the region.
“No, no. Clearly al-Qaeda, the al-Qaeda that attacked the United States of America on 9/11, we have gone after in a big way,” he argued, badly damaging their leadership and ability to conduct attacks. “We always knew that we would have to continue to confront elements of extremism elsewhere as well.”
Those elements, he claimed, were resorting to desperate tactics because of U.S. pressure and a lack of public support.
“Just like the Taliban in Afghanistan makes use of insider attacks, makes use of IEDs, largely speaks to their inability to regain any of the territory that they’ve lost,” he argued. “They’re going to resort to these kinds of tactics, because in many ways I think they have lost their voice in the Middle East.”
In any other week, the rift between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration would command larger headlines. Panetta swatted away the scuttle over “red lines,” insisting the U.S. would not allow Iran obtain a nuclear weapon and repeating intelligence estimates that Tehran had not yet decided to pursue a weapon despite its continued uranium enrichment.
“Let’s just say, when you have friends like Israel you engage in vigorous debates about how you confront these issues, and that’s what’s going on,” he said.
“It sometimes, in democracies, plays out in the public.”
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GettyImages
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It is strange that Leon Panetta preferred FP’s National Security Channel to make a major policy statement. Never heard about it.
Zionists, lurking in the background, as is expected on FP, are reading their scripts. No wonder they carry such a heavy load to protect and defend their country, USA, Oops, Israel.
Life goes on.
If I were Leon Panetta, thank god I am not, I would go where no sane person would. In the middle of conflict, not at 11 Dupont Circle NW Suite 600. Jerusalem, Oops, Washington, DC USA
…and I am Sid Harth@mysistereileen.org
Panetta is a politician and not military. He either totally misunderstands the reason Netanyahu wants red lines, or is purposely mocking him. He provides Obama with feckless options or reflects Obama’s weakness. Dropping 50 marines in a city of millions is not going to stop a riot and prevent the mob from killing them unless they were given rounds for their weapons and authority to use them. This attitude is an insult to America.
He is right that the fall of dictators has left a “void for extremist elements to strike from “positions of weakness.”
Unfortunately it is Obama’s weakness. Apparently Panetta’s as well.
Kevin Baron reports on the people and policies driving the Pentagon and the national security establishment in The E-Ring.
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…and I am Sid Harth@mysistereileen.org