Tuesday, 16 October 2012

We all need Obama to step up to this presidential legacy

For my introduction to politics, few experiences can have been as seminal, in my delicate formative years, than seeing posters proclaiming the president of the United States a traitor to his nation.
Shocking sight for an impressionable 10-year old

Since he was assassinated the following day and, even at 10 years of age, I had grasped the fact that an only recently abolished tradition made the sentence for treason death, I could hardly fail to associate the poster with the execution. My parents were horrified but, even without their example, I think I would have been just as shocked myself.

Why am I talking about this now? Partly because we are in the middle of the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, when that President, John Kennedy, stared done Kruschev and drove him to withdraw Soviet missiles from the island. He did that without firing a single shot or mobilising a single soldier.

It was one of the accusations on the poster: ‘Missile removal - Cuba’ appear among the examples of the ‘innumerable issues’ on which JFK had been wrong (or rather, WRONG). Funnily enough, most of us who lived through the crisis rather thought he’d got it right, and were grateful that he’d found a way out without precipitating a third world war.

Which brings me to the other reason why I’m talking about this now. Last Thursday Joe Biden and Paul Ryan met in the Vice Presidential debate for the 2012 US election. Among other things, Ryan criticised the Obama administration for having ‘called Bashar Assad a reformer when he was turning his Russian-provided guns on his own people’. It’s not strictly true: Hillary Clinton said that people had regarded Assad as possibly a reformer, but that was rather a long time before he’d turned his guns on his people.

However, it isn’t Ryan’s mendacity that interests me here. It’s the implicit accusation that the Obama team is soft on Syria. He wants to get harder? He doesn’t feel that we’ve had about as many entanglements in the Middle East as we need? He thinks the other ones have worked out just dandy for us?

Perhaps he feels it’s time to be more supportive of the friends of the US and tougher on its enemies. That was a concern of the authors of that poster all those years ago: ‘He is betraying our friends (Cuba, Katanga, Portugal) and befriending our enemies (Russia, Yugoslavia, Poland).’

In particular, Ryan’s not keen on working through the United Nations or, as he put it on Thursday, ‘outsourcing our foreign policy to the UN.’ This reprises a theme he announced in August, when he pointed out that the ‘Obama foreign policy is to subjugate ourselves to the United Nations, which gives Russia and China a veto power at the Security Council’.

Curiously, the authors of the JFK poster wrote ‘he is turning the sovereignty of the U.S. over to the communist controlled United Nations.’ It’s less fashionable than then to accuse people of communism, but in other respects the idea is the same.

All this is causing bells to jangle in my mind. Perhaps Ryan is a less extreme version of the men behind the ‘Treason’ poster, but his thinking’s very much the same. And I remember that Kennedy had the strength to stand by his position but also the strength to resist the siren calls of the hawks.

Just imagine if he hadn’t. The world might have seen the outbreak of a most disastrous war. And for what? Just over a quarter of a century later, the Soviet world collapsed anyway when the Berlin wall came down.

And look what happened when he didn’t resist hard enough: the US found itself embroiled in a long, bitter and bloody war in Vietnam which delivered his country its first defeat.

Today, in a world not much less dangerous than in 1962, I want more of the Kennedy who knew how to resist calls for military action over Cuba, less of the one who took the US deeper into the fighting in Indochina. And certainly nothing at all of the men who denounced him.

This evening Obama faces Romney for his second debate. Ryan has shown that his ticket belongs to the tainted tradition that in its time produced the ‘Treason’ poster. Obama has on more than one occasion shown the guts of a latter-day Kennedy.

I watched Obama in 2008 and he was inspirational. In his campaigning, he was already a worthy successor of JFK. But what happened at the last debate with Romney? Why didn’t Obama wipe the floor with him like Kennedy did with Nixon?

The Obama of 2008 didn’t show up then. He’d better be there tonight. Because I’ve known since I was ten that letting the other lot get anywhere near the levers of power is a recipe for catastrophe. For the US, of course; but for all the rest of us too.


Anonymous said...

311I don't know about Kennedy resisting calls for action in Cuba. Remember the Bay of Pigs.


I am on my sixth- 7-8-9 attempt. I think the system thinks I AM a robot

David Beeson said...

Yes, the Bay of Pigs was a disaster. But the missile crisis came later and a lot Kennedy's opponents wanted him to use it as a pretext to launch a full-scale invasion - not US-backed emigrés but real US military action. I think it's to his credit that he refused, and I think that may have been in part because of his Bay of Pigs experience.