America needs a strong presidency. That is no knock on Donald Trump or his immediate predecessors, but rather a condition that rears its ugly head every few generations or so, whereby our nation’s foreign policy becomes so politicized that it leaves our commander-in-chief virtually crippled to lead.
The most recent example of this began sometime in the mid-1990s and continues to this day. President Clinton was a deft politician who was able to weather the storm when facing some backlash for American intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. His immediate successor, the younger President Bush, did not fare as well. After soaring to a modern record-high approval rating exceeding 90 percent shortly after 9/11, Bush’s numbers plummeted in his second term, to a low of 29 percent before finally settling somewhere in the 30s, primarily due to his decision to invade Iraq. Just as Vietnam had stymied the (Lyndon) Johnson and Nixon presidencies, Iraq felled Bush’s standing, and more importantly, emboldened the opposing party to take liberties in attacking an incumbent president about issues that extend beyond the water’s edge – an affront to the longstanding advice not to do so offered by Sen. Arthur Vandenberg in 1947.
President Obama managed for the most part to deflect any prolonging of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars to Bush, and President Trump to this point remains the most battered incumbent since Nixon.
Judging from the 17 Republicans who sought the presidency in 2016 and the 24 (and counting) Democrats who seek it in 2020, not only are American politics less about country, they are even less about party; in Washington, this is the new “me” generation, and part and parcel of that mindset is to attack the incumbent at every turn, paying absolutely no heed to the wisdom of Vandenberg’s maxim.
Now we have a festering foreign policy imbroglio in Venezuela. As Sen. Lindsey Graham – an issue-by-issue supporter or critic of the president – wrote in a May 22 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “President Trump has stood firmly on the side of the Venezuelan people. He correctly declared Juan Guaido the legitimate leader and Nicolas Maduro an impostor, urged Venezuelans to resist the Maduro regime, and promised that America stands with them. The Trump administration has done a terrific job building a regional and global coalition against Mr. Maduro. The Organization of American States has come out firmly in support of Mr. Guaido.” Sen. Graham explained that “Maduro’s regime is propped up by communist Cuba, which has stationed thousands of security forces in Venezuela to protect him from his own people. This continues the Havana dictatorship’s long history of opposition to democratic governments. Cuba is a Western Hemisphere version of Iran – a rogue nation sowing discord and damaging America’s long-term interests. In the 1980s, confronted with Cuban intervention in Grenada, President Reagan intervened militarily, ensuring Grenada didn’t become a satellite state of Cuba. The U.S. must be willing to intervene in Venezuela the way we did in Grenada.” What he also should have added is that Russia has sent its own people to the region – suspected to be military even though Vladimir Putin insists otherwise – which is a threat to the Monroe Doctrine. Of course, the counterargument is: “who are we to tell other countries to stay out of our hemisphere when we don’t stay out of theirs?” The answer to that question encapsulates one’s vision of America’s role in the world: are we one of many countries, all to be held to the same rules and standards, or are we the world’s most moral superpower ever, and thus destined and obligated to maintain our role as the world’s leader? I am the last person to support Mitt Romney, but in his 2010 book No Apology – the Case for American Greatness, he made a compelling argument for the latter by presenting numerous scenarios as to the alternative, none of which seemed as remotely comforting to world peace and order, by comparison.
Sen. Graham’s reference to the Grenada invasion recalls a time when politics beyond the water’s edge, even with notable exceptions notwithstanding, was far less divisive than it is today. The current problem is exacerbated by the relentless pursuit of portraying Donald Trump as an illegitimate president, one who lacks the intelligence, experience, integrity, and even mental competence to run the country and represent it on the world stage. If Trump is for it, it must be bad, goes the theory. That strategy, employed for potential short-term political gain, is dangerous to America’s best interests. Consider President George W. Bush’s speech to Congress on September 20, 2001, just nine days after 9/11. America was as united as any of us younger than 80 ever remember it. If only we could find our unity again – without it resulting from the aftermath of a colossal tragedy – we would be unstoppable.
When we learned that Vladimir Putin tried to sabotage our election, many Americans expressed outrage – some innocently and sincerely, others simply feigning it, for they know all too well it is not the first time Russia – or other countries – attempted to do so, and when it comes to political sabotage, we are far from being angels ourselves. Where Putin succeeded was in fueling the raging feud that strongly divides the MAGA hat-wearers on the one hand and the TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome) sufferers and Never-Trumpers on the other. And that doesn’t bode well in paying heed to Sens. Vandenberg’s and Graham’s words of wisdom.
For those who didn’t yet read my column during the Obama years – or who may have forgotten what I wrote back then – I blasted the Republicans for criticizing the then-sitting president on issues beyond the water’s edge, and I often called them, among other things, downright un-American. Similarly, this latest piece is not a call to blindly glorify the president; rather, it is to give him the necessary support to wield a united American foreign policy on the world stage. There will always be time to bicker among ourselves about issues inside the water’s edge, such as abortion, healthcare, and even impeachment.