(/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/09/pcflag1.gif)Reading from the same script, the president’s many friends in the media spent last week pounding Gov. Mitt Romney for daring to turn a U.S. foreign policy problem into a political issue. They called the GOP nominee “irresponsible” and “craven” and “disgraceful.” One media mouthpiece gasped that Romney had “launched a political attack even before acts of embassy violence were known.” For his part, President Barack Obama dismissed Romney for “shooting before aiming,” and then promptly declared that Egypt was neither an ally nor an enemy—something that came as news to the State Department and to Egypt. (Sadly but not surprisingly, this enormous diplomatic gaffe/blunder was not newsworthy to the president’s press.) Media mantras notwithstanding, not only was Romney right on the merits—America’s embassies should never apologize for America’s values—he did nothing outside the American political tradition when he criticized U.S. foreign policy during a political campaign. Foreign policy failures are fair game in presidential politics—and have been ever since America emerged as a global power.
Three months into the Great War—to that point, the most dire and dangerous foreign policy crisis in American history—TR lambasted Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy. “The course of the present administration in foreign affairs,” he wrote in a scathing op-ed, “has combined officiously offensive action toward foreign powers with tame submission to wrongdoing by foreign powers.” The former president openly criticized Wilson for leaving America unprepared for war. “When, early in 1909, our battle fleet returned from its sixteen months’ voyage the world, there was no navy in the world which, size for size, ship for ship and squadron for squadron, stood at a higher pitch of efficiency. We blind ourselves to the truth if we believe that the same is true now…At present our navy is lamentably short in many different material directions. There is actually but one torpedo for each torpedo tube. It seems incredible that such can be the case; yet it is the case. We are many thousands of men short in our enlistments.”
In the autumn of 1952, Ike called Korea a “tragedy,” “the burial ground for 20,000 American dead,” and “a damning measure of the quality of leadership we have been given.” The general-turned-candidate blamed the outgoing Truman administration for a “record of failure.” Conveying the exasperation of an entire nation, he asked, “Is there an end?” And he warned that “neither glib promises nor glib excuses” would suffice in answering that question.
Running for president in 1960, JFK pointed to a supposed “missile gap” with the Soviet Union as evidence of America’s weakening defenses. “We are facing a gap on which we are gambling with our survival,” JFK warned. “This year’s defense budget is our last chance to do something about it,” he added for dramatic effect. But as historian Richard Reeves later wrote, “He was lying.” In truth, the only missile gap was the vast chasm between Moscow’s three—three—ICBMs and America’s atomic arsenal of Polaris-equipped submarines, 108 ICBMs and 600 nuclear bombers. CIA briefers even informed the Kennedy campaign of this, but the attacks continued. Reeves notes that the day before JFK’s inauguration, Ike made it clear to his young successor that the “missile gap” was myth—something the Kennedy administration admitted less than a month later.
In 1976, amid some of the coldest days of the Cold War, Carter mounted a blistering foreign policy attack on the Ford administration. “Our country is not strong anymore; we’re not respected anymore,” he said, adding, “we are weak and the rest of the world knows it.”
Four years later, Reagan leveled the same attack at Carter’s failed foreign policy by listing the many places where Carter’s doctrine of moral equivalence and appeasement had devastated U.S. interests: “A Soviet combat brigade trains in Cuba, just 90 miles from our shores. A Soviet army of invasion occupies Afghanistan…America’s defense strength is at its lowest ebb in a generation, while the Soviet Union is vastly outspending us in both strategic and conventional arms…Our European allies, looking nervously at the growing menace from the East, turn to us for leadership and fail to find it. And incredibly, more than 50 of our fellow Americans have been held captive for over eight months by a dictatorial foreign power that holds us up to ridicule before the world,” Reagan declared. “Disasters are overtaking our nation without any real response from Washington,” he added, pounding Carter for “self-deceit” and “transparent hypocrisy.”
That brings us back to the current administration. Obama, it pays to recall, premised his entire 2008 campaign on how decidedly different his views on Iraq in specific and national security in general were from his opponents. Alongside his two autobiographies, his stance on the Iraq war was all that his campaign was about. In fact, as his campaign gathered momentum and supporters, he launched broadsides against the Bush administration’s efforts to rescue Iraq—attacking the surge while American troops were in the field.
But back then, criticizing the president was considered courageous by the press. Not so today. Even as Obama’s lead-from-behind doctrine smolders, to criticize this president’s foreign policy is “irresponsible” and “craven” and “disgraceful.”
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