George W. Bush got banged up badly for his foreign policy choices: Iraq, Guantanamo, "torture," a certain tonal disdain for critics foreign and domestic. It will be interesting to see, in a matter of weeks or possibly days, how his successor, Barack Obama, fares with the critics.
Many on the right sound angry right now over what they see as Obama's dithering, apologetic tone in all he does from a foreign policy standpoint. What? He can't make up his mind about how to handle Afghanistan? He's had just one meeting with the head of our forces there? He thinks he can charm the Iranians into coming clean about their nuclear program? And all the emphasis in his recent United Nations address on our desire for "a new chapter in international cooperation" -- what was that about?
Two considerations come immediately to mind: First: The ordeal of George W. Bush in 2006 and 2007, as the left hurled malignities and malefactions and some of the right soured on his approach to Iraq. One slogan comes to mind with special clarity after the national uproar over a two-word taunt -- "You lie!" -- hurled at Obama by a member of Congress from South Carolina. The slogan, employed routinely by Bush critics: "Bush lied, people died." A congressman can't use the word "lie" (even to mean "misrepresent"). Splenetic bloggers and talking heads can use it all they like.
The quick, effortless take on Bush was that he had tricked his countrymen into waging a war almost no one but he had wanted. Then the take became, we've lost the war. All over, sorry! That was, of course, until Gen. David Petraeus deftly turned the situation around.
The second consideration I would bring up: In a splintered, fragmented world of 192 nations -- the current United Nations membership -- how does any U.S. president get it right every time? What's "right" for all these varied entities, including the one that supposedly counts most: our own? A president -- liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat -- will, let us just say, misjudge from time to time. The point to notice will be the grounds on which he misjudges: concern for American freedoms and security -- or other concerns entirely.
Former President George W. Bush can properly be called to account for misjudgment and blunders, chiefly, perhaps, the superb confidence with which he plunged into Iraq. There is one thing, nevertheless, that should be said of Bush -- a laudable thing. Even when wrong, or just off base, or insufficiently mindful of great complexities, he sought the safety of the American people. He took a high view -- in other words, of the president's constitutional role as commander in chief and of his corollary duty, less specifically spelled out -- to keep the American people secure and free.
One wouldn't argue for the splendor, any more than for the success, of his every foreign policy move. One might argue merely that the proper grounds on which to judge the foreign policy stewardship of Barack Obama are these same essential grounds: Not, did he please Europe and Russia and reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Not even, did he heal the Israeli-Palestinian divide? Did he keep us safe and free? That will be the question. No larger question underlies, say, the conundrum of the Iranian nuclear challenge, or the matter of what strategy to pursue in Afghanistan and for how long.
It's certainly about our "image" in the world, this foreign policy stuff. But images are of value only so far as they work to effect respect, coupled with healthy fear in the basest circles, when the United States comes to mind.
Obama talks relatively little about freedom. It's the major gap in his, I'm afraid, overpraised ability to read his speeches on electronic devices. He'll have better fortune as leader of the free world -- the unofficial title of the American president -- when he talks about freedom itself with the same warmth and zeal he seems to reserve for those new chapters supposedly just ahead in the book of international cooperation.