Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Presidential Profiles in Courage

Ever hear that song, "Hey, now, what's that sound, everybody look what's going 'round,"

Well, look at Iran, post-election:

And what did President Obama say?

Normally, I'm a Legislative geek. Congressional Speeches, Conference committees? I totally geek out just as if I was following a Doctor Who episode. But, in studying Presidents (and voting for them), I look for one answer: What will the future (or incumbent) president sacrifice his or her popularity for a cause greater then themselves?

President Kennedy (D-MA) wrote a book, Profiles in Courage, detailing Legislators and Executives (not Presidents) who stood up against the popular and did what they thought was right. Since I was born in 1970, let's go President by President from there, and see who actually stands as a "Profile in Courage,"

President Richard Nixon (R-CA) -- The world's most famous Anti-Communist. Alger Hiss, anyone? In his first term, using Realpolitik, he opens up China and during his re-election, made detente with the USSR. Hence the term: Nixon to China.

President Ford (R-MI) -- Pardoned Nixon when everyone wanted a hanging party. His decision saved the US from another civil war.

President Carter (D-GA) -- Peace treaty for Israel and Eygpt. The last good deed he did for the Jews.

President Reagan (R-CA) -- Stood up to the Democrats and defended Freedom Overseas (Contras and Afghanistan) against the USSR. Stood up to his own staff when they told him to temper his words, he said at the Berlin wall: "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall," Bravery against the popular culture and his own staff (Ivies all compared to Reagan) to stand for freedom.

President George H. W. Bush (R-TX) -- Drew a line in the sand against Saddam Hussein when there were people opposed to using the military for Kuwait. In the end, he made the right choices. Except for taxes.

President Clinton (D-AR) -- I got nothing. He sacrificed people to keep his popularity up. No bravery here, keep reading.

President George W. Bush (R-TX) -- Sacrificed his popularity for Democratizing the Middle East, even when the world (and the Democrats) are screaming for Realpolitik. This week, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, said this week he was right. A true mensch.

As far as President Obama is concerned, it costs him nothing to say, "I support the people in Iran and their struggle," America paid for the sins of 1953 in 1979. Time to stand up and be counted Mr. President.

My question, to all the Liberals and Democrats, since President Obama, with a majority proof Congress will not overturn DOMA and DADT for his allies, why would he stand for up for non-Obama voters in Iran? What will he sacrifice his popularity for?

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  1. Anonymous7:15 AM PDT

    I guess evenhandedness here would have been too much to expect. How about ending the genocide in Bosnia on the plus side for Clinton? How about bringing down the deficit (thought GW undid it and more)?

  2. Octobia,

    But the question here, was Clinton willing to sacrifice his popularity for those issues?

    I still say No. Show me where I'm wrong. I'm listening.

  3. Bob Flenner6:51 AM PDT


    There are a some things I agree with you in you analysis. Richard Nixon's policy vis a vis the Soviet Union and China were possibly the only 2 things I approve from his Presidency.

    Gerald Ford's decision to pardon Nixon did doom his Presidential candidacy, but in hindsight, he probably did save this country untold misery...not sure about the claim you make regarding a Civil War, however, that strikes me as being more hyperbole than fact.

    Carter's Camp David Accords were a masterpiece of personal diplomacy. His current stance is something you and I will not agree on. In my opinion, there is no way that there will be a full peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians (or Syria,etc...for that matter) until there is a cease to Israeli settlements, a demilitarized zone and adequate security guarantees for both Israel and the Palestinians. I see Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent policy speech is a very good start. It is very similar to the process in Northern Ireland, without a true cessation of violence and a laying down of arms from Hamas, there can and will be no peace. Israel has the right to exist, no question...the only question is whether or not there will be a formal peace agreement in place before another full out war.

    George H. W. Bush's first Gulf War was also something that needed to be done to combat aggression. Because of the nature of the alliance, he could not take the war fully into Iraq lest he lost the support of said alliance. Also, by keeping Hussein in power, he kept an adequate counter weight in the region against Iran, with whom he had fought a decade long war of attrition.

    Clinton, you and I will not agree on but if you recall his Welfare to Work program ran counter to many in the left and was roundly criticized. Personal courage or not, he was able to work with a Republican majority and did in fact create a budget surplus, which none of the recent Republican President's managed to do. In addition, Somalia and Bosnia were not popular...I seem to remember a lot of criticism regarding "nation building" from the Right, which was conveniently forgotten by the Conservatives when GWB became President.

    George W. Bush's plan to democratize the Middle East through the Iraq invasion was a total mistake. Democracy at the point of a gun, and from outside sources is not a good idea, especially in the Middle East.

    As far as the central point you raise about Obama there are many things he has already done to create a buffer from the Left, but he is already feeling a good deal of criticism from them. His refusal to unclassify certain documents from the War on Terror, the resumption of tribunal "trials", the increase of domestic surveillance, the lack of specifics on Darfur and of course the Stimulus Plan's focus on saving the large financial institutions have drawn increased uproar from both the Right and the Left. I think that since it is only 5 months since he took office, that it is far too early to say that he does not have courage. We are already seeing his popularity slip from the highs of the post election euphoria as the reality of what needs to be done truly sink in. I say we revisit this in another year and see where we are.

  4. Bob,

    As always, great answer. Thank you for answering it regarding Clinton (where I did not see anything, you found me proof).

    I still think it costs President Obama nothing to say the protesters are right. But you are right, this is a young Presidency and I fear we will cover this issue again.

    Thank you.

  5. Bob Flenner1:25 PM PDT


    Re the Iranian situation, I actually think it is wise to not comment directly as Obama did. The situation there is extremely volatile. I remember after the first Gulf War, we offered strong words of support for the Kurds and other anti-Hussein groups in Iraq and they, believing that we would offer material support ended up being slaughtered.

    This situation reminds me of the "Velvet Revolution" and to a lesser extent the Tienanmen Square revolt. Both were crushed, but did result in a more open society eventually. One of the things we need to keep in mind is that one country's version of a democratic society is going to be different than ours. No matter what happens, and because a vast majority of Iranians are under 35 there will be changes, it will remain a relatively moderately conservative Muslim country; I doubt that the theocracy will fall. If Khameni falls, another mullah will replace him and what implications that will bring we have no way of knowing.

    The most important thing is that it is happening. I think that what Obama said was that we support a people to make their own decisions and to respond to their leaders in a way to ensure that there is some sort of transparency. To take sides, as some would want, would be to create an atmosphere in which the ruling elite would be able to justify an even harsher crack down, with more loss of life all because they would point to "outside interference".

    I am far more concerned with the situation with north Korea and with Pakistan right now than with Iran. It may take years, but I believe that within 10 years or perhaps much less we will see a regime change within Iran; one that will come from within and be truly organic. The vast free flow of information will see to that.

  6. I'm not even so sure you're asking the right question, JSF. I mean, it is courageous when a President is willing to forgo popularity for the sake of something s/he believes in, but I wonder whether that in itself makes the act they perform right.

    While I agree that the acts of courage offered here were courageous and were good decisions as well--I have the most issue with Clinton's welfare overhaul, which I guess shows where I'm coming from--I don't agree that one naturally leads to the other, or that the American people whose goodwill a given President is willing to lose are necessarily wrong... Know what I mean? "Brave" and "smart" are not two peas in a pod...

    Also, as Bob rightly alluded to, it's instructive to look at when in their terms these former Presidents committed their acts of bravery... How many would be knocked off your list, if you could only judge them based on their first five months in office? Perhaps it will even be one of the items that Bob lists that will end up being Obama's big act of courage...

    Finally, I seem to recall that other Presidents have been cautious at first, in the face of a new international crisis. Reagan pulled out of Beirut. The students had occupied Tienanmen Square for seven weeks before the massacre. When did President HW Bush finally speak for them?

  7. I would argue that the most prudent method of addressing the current situation is to have the United States communicate their views through a disinterested intermediary.

    First, an open and direct statement in support of the demonstrators by the Obama Administration would in all probability be viewed as a provocative act and an open challenge to legitimacy of the theocractic goverment of Iran.

    Second, any overt statement made by the United States would be rendered meaningless because, we as a nation have wasted to an extent the influence we accrued in earlier decades stunting our ability to act indirectly and bring pressure to bear on Iran.

    Additionally, we lack the resources and regional allies necessary to check Iran's expansion in direct manner. As much as the Sunni dominated countries are loathe to see the Shi'a Iran become the ascendant power in the Persian Gulf, the Sunni dominated countries like Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt are reticent to ally themselves with the United States to oppose Iran for fear of causing discontent and disharmony on the homefront, while simultaneously angering the Russian bear.

    The current standing of the United States in the community of nations demands an evolution in the strategies and tactics employed by the United States.

    I would argue that United States Government and its officers should adopt a diplomatic strategy that emphasizes the employment of the strategies developed by Oriental strategists conversant in Arabic, Afghan, Byzantine, Chinese, Flipino, Gurkha, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Pakistani, Russian, Sik0h and Vietnamese schools of thought in regard to diplomacy and warfare. As opposed to the conventional Occidental spproaches to these topics.


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