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October 29, 2012
Presidential decisions - right and wrong
US Presidents make a lot of decisions, and, not surprisingly, a lot of mistakes. In this, it does not matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat.
Being President of the US, therefore, is not like being a college football coach or a baseball pitcher: No one expects you to have an unbeaten record or a perfect game. However, a good president learns from his or her mistakes and the earlier errors and successes of other leaders.
Democrat Harry Truman did not expect to be president. He came into office following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He did not complain that FDR left him an unfinished bloody world war. Instead, he tried to end the war as quickly as possible. His fateful decision to use atomic bombs on Japan made that possible.
Harry Truman never ducked responsibility for that decision nor for the decision to begin a huge support plan for war-torn Europe known as the Marshall Plan, named for Truman's good friend, Secretary of State, Gen. George Marshall.
Despite Truman's friendship with Marshall, he was not afraid to reject Marshall's views and to face down the entire US diplomatic and security establishment in order to recognize the newly born State of Israel in 1948.
Truman also made mistakes. He seized US steel mills, and his administration gave China and North Korea the idea that South Korea would not be protected. Truman corrected that impression with the Korean War. He never blamed a diplomat for sending the wrong message. He lived by the sign on his desk: "The buck stops here."
Democrat John Kennedy talked tough about US security in the 1960 election campaign, but his first months in office were a foreign policy disaster. In April 1961 he presided over the calamitous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Two months later, he met Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in a disastrous two-day summit in Vienna.
""He just beat the hell out of me.," Kennedy later confided, calling the summit the roughest days of his life.
Khrushchev came away believing JFK was a young wimp, a push-over, and he decided to build the Berlin Wall and install nuclear missiles in Cuba. Kennedy had to take the world to the brink of war in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 to correct the Communist leader's mistaken impression.
Along the way, Kennedy openly admitted that he bore the blame for his own performance at the Vienna summit and for not being on top of the details at the Bay of Pigs operation, even though the Cuban invasion was planned in the last months of the Eisenhower Administration. Yet, Kennedy admitted mistakes and corrected them.
In the final months of the 2012 election campaign foreign policy issues-terror and a phony "Arab Spring"-have arisen as campaign issues.
President Barack Obama made many judgments about how to fight terror and how to "engage" Arab-Islamic leaders. Obama closed down enhanced interrogation of terrorists, and he tried to close down the Guantanamo base in Cuba. He and Attorney General Eric Holder have taken a largely "law-enforcement" approach to terror.
Overseas, Obama has tried to engage the ayatollahs in Iran, Assad's Syria and the neo-Communist regime in Russia, and these polices have been a resounding failure.
President Obama was more than ready to take credit for killing Osama Bin-Laden, but evaded discussing the details or the larger issues of his approach to the Middle East and to his handling of terror, including fatal attacks from Libya to Fort Hood.
So, Obama likes to claim that he is as good a friend to Israel as Harry Truman and as charming and successful an exponent of America abroad as John Kennedy.
But to paraphrase another Democrat: we knew Harry Truman, and we knew Jack Kennedy. Obama is no Harry Truman and no Jack Kennedy.
Dr. Michael Widlanski, an expert on Arab politics and communications, is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. A former reporter, correspondent and editor, respectively at The New York Times, Cox Newspapers and The Jerusalem Post, he was Strategic Affairs Advisor in Israel's Ministry of Public Security and teaches at Bar Ilan University.
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