The president has waged war from Day 1. It’s pathetic that critics still claim he’s weak on defense.
By: David Swerdlick
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be mistaken, of course, if he went home this week with the impression that all along, he’s been dealing with some sort of peace freak in the White House — but you could still forgive him for it. After all, that’s what President Barack Obama’s rivals like to say.
Even though Obama has been waging war since the day he took office, his opponents have never stopped claiming that he’s a weak-kneed commander in chief. And although there’s never been any hint that Obama would balk at using force to defend Americans or our allies, his detractors have pounced on Iranian nukes, and Israel’s potential response, as the latest way to continue calling the president — pardon the expression — a wuss.
And it’s well past the time that they should have cut it out.
Addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in between campaign stops on Tuesday, Rick Santorum declared that Obama “has turned his back on the people of Israel,” Mitt Romney riffed that “hope is not a foreign policy,” and Newt Gingrich boasted that if he were president, he “would not keep talking while the Iranians keep building.”
Their statements betray just how much they want to hang on to the image that Sen. John McCain and — ironically — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to pin on Obama back in 2008. With no real answer to the president’s foreign policy, they’ll say anything that portrays him as a coward.
But they’re not the only ones. In the National Review, former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith writes that Obama initially engaged with Iran’s leaders because he “fears offending them.” In the Wall Street Journal, Stanford’s Fouad Ajami decries Obama’s “passivity” and calls his cautious stance on Syria’s civil war a “general retreat.” In The Root’s sister publication Foreign Policy, former George W. Bush hands Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie telegraph the strategy by encouraging the GOP presidential candidates to “use the president’s own words and actions to portray him as naive and weak on foreign affairs.”
They’ll keep calling Obama a wuss no matter what the facts are on the ground. And not one of them learned a lesson from Dick Cheney, who claimed that the president was “dithering” (read: “wussing out”) in Afghanistan during the same year that Obama put 50,000 new troops in the field.
It’s intellectually dishonest and politically unnecessary, since there’s plenty of room to take issue with Obama’s foreign policy without peddling the absurd idea that he’s somehow afraid of war.
What’s worse is that it demeans the process by which Obama — or any other president — decides how and when to involve Americans in a military conflict. It’s the worst kind of “chicken hawking” — in which politicians and pundits simultaneously accuse Obama of weakness and talk tough about what they’d do in (take your pick) Iraq, Libya or Yemen — knowing that they’ll never actually have to back up any of that talk with action.
Dismissing Obama’s approach to war as “passivity” or, in Mitt Romney’s words, “appeasement” is to willingly overlook the criteria that any president ought to apply before going to war: the cost in lives, the economic cost, potential blowback, the need for international consensus and the need for a reason more compelling than “we should do something.” It’s a circumspect — even conservative — approach that should be emulated, not mocked.
Quietly, Obama has compiled a war résumé more impressive than any other president’s since Dwight D. Eisenhower. He opposed the Iraq War but figured out how to wind it down with dignity. He took out Osama bin Laden and found a way to topple Muammar Qaddafi without a single American casualty.
But his overarching military accomplishment was reinstituting Teddy Roosevelt’s wise admonition to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” To no avail, apparently, when it comes to his challengers.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday about Iran, Obama scolded his critics for “beating the drums of war” and reminded them that only the president — not the wannabes and also-rans — bears the weight of “sending our young men and women into battle, and the impact that has on their lives.”
“Everything else,” he said, “is just talk.”
The only thing he might have added was, “Ask Osama bin Laden.”
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root.