September 16, 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.
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