“Speak softly and carry a big stick” — from an African proverb
WASHINGTON — By the time President Barack Obama announced late Sunday evening that U.S. commandoes had killed Osama bin Laden, the conservative Weekly Standard had already hit newsstands with a cover caricature of the president cowering behind a sand dune, “leading from behind.” An accompanying editorial by outspoken neo-con William Kristol, the magazine’s editor, accused Obama of “appeasing those who revile us.”
Given that U.S. Navy Seals acting on Obama’s orders were preparing to track down Public Enemy No. 1 when the magazine went to print, it was a bad bit of timing for the president’s most vociferous critics. But Kristol was merely echoing the condemnations leveled at Obama regularly by a raft of likely Republican presidential contenders, including Mitt Romney.
Bin Laden’s death has interrupted that narrative, if only temporarily. The steady drumbeat of denunciations of Obama as weak and indecisive — supposedly, he apologies to our enemies while refusing to acknowledge our exceptionalism — has been muted, for now. Even the usually-churlish Dick Cheney managed to congratulate the president on the occasion of bin Laden’s much-deserved demise.
That won’t last, of course. This is a period of harsh partisanship, and it won’t be overcome by bin Laden’s end — however welcome that is. Besides, the stakes are too high for Obama’s rivals to concede his foreign policy expertise; they want to limit him to a one-term presidency.
Still, I’m hoping that Sunday’s dramatic news will foster a growing appreciation of Obama’s quiet and thoughtful style of leadership. Shouldn’t it be clear by now that swagger, bellicosity and belligerence don’t win wars or quell terrorism?
The first to question Obama’s fitness to be commander-in-chief were his Democratic primary opponents, who, naturally, tried to paint the inexperienced senator as out of his depth. Hillary Clinton ran the much-talked-about ad featuring a 3 a.m. emergency phone call.
And Obama drew widespread rebukes for an August 2007 speech in which he said he would send U.S. military forces into Pakistan after bin Laden. Democrats called him naïve, while conservatives claimed he had threatened to “invade” Pakistan. One Fox News analyst called it “loonier than anything he’s said about Iraq.”
It turns out Obama is neither naïve nor loony. He increased the use of unmanned drones over Pakistan and Afghanistan, killing more al-Qaida operatives in his short tenure than his predecessor did in eight years. And he ignored the official protestations of our Pakistani “allies,” who insisted that they had no idea where bin Laden was hiding. (Surely, any U.S. president would have done the same thing with “actionable” intelligence.)
Lately, Republicans, as well as some Democrats, have bashed Obama for his tentative, ad hoc responses to the uprisings in the Middle East. A chorus of second-guessers has chided him over Libya — some for doing too little, others for doing too much. Many of the president’s critics seem to miss the “dead or alive” cowboy diplomacy of the Bush years and the bristling, finger-in-your-face rhetoric that went along with it.
I don’t miss that at all. It accomplished nothing. Indeed, it probably hurt America’s cause as the world came to resent our recklessness and arrogance. The United States was seen as a bully, which didn’t help us to recruit allies.
I greatly prefer Obama’s cooler, studied approach. He didn’t have to use the words “global war on terror” to focus on al-Qaida. Nor did he need to publicly threaten bin Laden with “dead or alive” in order to rid the world of his menace.
Obama’s foreign policy is hardly perfect. No one can say with certainty what Afghanistan will be like in a decade. Our policy toward the Arab uprisings is a patchwork of conflicting attitudes and colliding interests — some tyrants targeted, others tolerated.
But I have no doubt that Obama is tough enough to make hard calls. He doesn’t need to talk like John Wayne to prove it.
—— Cynthia Tucker