“I hate snakes!” It’s a great laugh line delivered by Indiana Jones on quests for rare archeological artifacts when he suddenly finds himself defenseless — surrounded by vipers. Somehow he always manages to survive the experience. The scenes should serve as a primer for U.S. presidents promising to deliver great changes in U.S. domestic policy. They are often surprised by unanticipated enemies, unexpected foreign policy disasters and unforeseen national security challenges. Unlike Indiana Jones, not all of them survive the experience.
Thomas Jefferson wanted to focus on “expanding the American frontier” and decided to forgo the expense of building a navy. He had to play “catch-up” when the Barbary pirates declared war on us.
James Madison’s plans for improving U.S. commerce and fostering internal economic development were disrupted by war with England. He and his wife, Dolly, fled Washington a few steps ahead of the British army as the Britons burned our nation’s capital.
The first great “progressive reformer,” Woodrow Wilson, came to office promising to keep America out of “European affairs and wars.” By Nov. 11, 1918, when Germany signed the armistice ending World War I, more than 110,000 Americans were missing or dead in “The War To End All Wars.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, focused on dramatically expanding the role of government in American life, pledged to remain “neutral” as Adolf Hitler’s legions swept across Europe and the Empire of Japan invaded China. The surprise attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, changed all that, but the welfare state he created survives to this day.
Fidel Castro and his Soviet sponsors stunned President John Kennedy — first at the Bay of Pigs and then by secretly attempting to install nuclear-tipped missiles 100 miles from the U.S. mainland. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, wanted to construct a “Great Society.” Yet the Johnson legacy after a single full term in office is the Vietnam War.
Jimmy Carter gutted U.S. military and intelligence capabilities to help pay for his ambitious domestic agenda. He frequently apologized for his predecessors’ “mistakes” in places such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama and Persia. But he was routed from office by a cascade of foreign policy crises and disastrous decisions to “build bridges to those who would be our adversaries.”
These precedents — particularly the Johnson and Carter presidencies — would seem to offer a clear warning to President Barack Obama that if he wants another term in office, he cannot repeat the mistakes of his predecessors. Yet the O-Team seems oblivious to the lessons of recent history.
Lyndon Johnson arguably knew more about the inner workings and hidden mechanisms of Congress than any occupant of the Oval Office in history. He surrounded himself with a “brain trust” and “whiz kids,” who helped him pass the Civil Rights Act and a dramatic expansion of the welfare state. But he was driven from office for his failure to win a war.
Jimmy Carter received high marks from U.S. and international media elites for his Utopian vision of world disarmament and peace in the Middle East and his policy of “engagement.” But he was “shocked and surprised” when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and “deeply disappointed” that the Islamic revolutionaries who seized power in Iran rebuffed his offer of a “dialogue to resolve our differences.”
Though the Obama administration has been spectacularly successful at pressing its domestic agenda through Congress, his national security policies may well prove to be more damaging to his aspirations than anything he does here at home. His promise to make dramatic cuts in the U.S. defense budget is even more Draconian than those made by Jimmy Carter — a situation most assuredly being watched by allies and adversaries alike. Worse, Obama’s obsequious bows and the apologies he tenders to foreign leaders make him appear to be an even weaker leader than Carter.
This week, after higher casualty reports from Afghanistan and a massive disclosure of classified material on the Internet, polls showed that only 36 percent of the American people approve of how he is performing as commander in chief. That’s 3 points lower than how they rate his handling of the current U.S. economic mess — and 9.5 percent unemployment.
Apparently unperturbed by this precipitous slide in his numbers, Obama proceeded to dispatch Ambassador John Roos, the U.S. envoy in Tokyo, on what can only be described as a ceremonial apology. It’s another Obama “first”; an American ambassador will attend the annual, overtly anti-American “world peace” ceremony in Hiroshima — at the site where the first of two nuclear weapons was used to end World War II.
As usual, the mainstream media and the international press commended the move. Whether this move turns out to be yet another foreign policy “snake” for Obama is, of course, not his call. That’s up to “We the People.” Indiana Jones, call your office.