Steve Chapman
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 a margin of 54 percent to 42 percent.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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