Russia’s penetration of Crimea leads some people to question the will or competence of President Obama. They believe he has presided over a radical diminution of American power. The critics may be right. Or not.
The Crimean situation is complicated. A majority Russian-speaking, Orthodox population feels far closer to Russia than to its western-oriented, Ukrainian-speaking, Catholic “countrymen.” Still, shouldn’t Obama rattle the American saber? Reflecting on the presidents in my lifetime and just before, I’m not convinced the critics make a case—certainly if they don’t provide a specific strategy. So here’s what came before Obama:
After Nine-Eleven, George W. Bush left the killing or capture of Osama bin Laden to Afghan warlords—and blew it. Then he moved American forces from Afghanistan to Iraq. We toppled Saddam Hussein but left Iraq in a bloody shambles at great cost to us. Bill Clinton waged a partial war on Islamist terrorism but couldn’t halt it. Nine-Eleven took place ten months after he left the White House. George H.W. Bush may have played it smartest. In 1991, U.S. forces kicked Saddam out of Kuwait in 100 hours—then left.
Ronald Reagan, the epitome of American Cold War macho, couldn’t control civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In 1983, truck bombs killed 241 American servicemen in Beirut. Yes, the Soviet Union collapsed. For the most part, that was internal. Jimmy Carter, to whom some compare Obama, failed to keep the Shah on Iran’s throne. An attempt to rescue American hostages held by Iranian revolutionaries embarrassed our nation.
Gerald Ford warmed the seat in the Oval Office after Richard Nixon resigned. Nixon flexed American military muscle, continuing the Vietnam War until late March 1973. That represented four more years battling guerillas and an army from the Third World who toppled South Vietnam in 1975. Lyndon Johnson sent combat troops to Vietnam in 1964. It seems North Vietnamese naval forces twice attacked American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Only the second incident never took place. The war cost 58,000 American lives and plunged our society into turmoil.
John F. Kennedy sent military advisors to South Vietnam. And while he forced Russia to withdraw missiles from Cuba, he had to pull American missiles from Turkey. Dwight Eisenhower kept Americans involved in South Vietnam after the French withdrew. He did get us out of Korea as promised, and South Korea eventually became a global success. North Korea continues as a brutal dictatorship.
Harry Truman sent U.S. troops to Korea to combat communist aggression as part of a U.N. “police action.” Over thirty thousand Americans were killed. When Franklin Roosevelt died before I was born, the Allied victory over Germany and Japan was foreordained. Those allies included the Soviet Union to which Roosevelt and Truman yielded Eastern Europe.
Where will history place Obama among these presidents? I don’t know. I can say that for all its differences, today’s world poses the same basic problems as the one into which I was born. American military power remains great but not without limits. By acknowledging this, Obama may be behind the times—or possibly ahead of them.
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