Archive for the ‘Foreign Policy’ Category

Mandela and Us

NM_mandela_old_photo_110127_16x9_992Most of the world is rightly celebrating the life and lessons of Nelson Mandela. Warts and all Mandela will go down as a pivotal figure in the last decades of the 20th Century and will no doubt remain the gold standard for the difficult, seemingly impossible politics of racial reconciliation.

Still it’s fascinating to see the broad and deep bipartisan out pouring of respect for a man that the Reagan Administration contended in the 1980′s was head of a terrorist organization, a designation that was not formally changed until 2008. There is some reason to believe the CIA tipped off South Africa’s whites-only government to Mandela’s whereabouts in 1962, a tip that ultimately led to his trial and lengthy incarceration.

I’m reminded of the intense and passionate debates in the early 1980′s over whether Ronald Reagan could be pressured to impose economic sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa. Then-Congressman Dick Cheney voted in 1985 against a resolution that called for Mandela’s release from jail and commentators from George Will to William F. Buckley defended the white South African government and condemned Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC) as just a pawn of the Soviet Union.

After much debate the Congress in 1986 voted to do what the Reagan Administration wouldn’t and imposed economic sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa. The president vetoed the legislation. Reagan, knowing he held a weak hand in the face of growing public outcry over the continued oppression of blacks in South Africa, pulled out all the stops in order to sustain his veto.

As the New York Times reported at the time, “Mr. Reagan made a major effort…to salvage his veto, and he called a number of Senators personally, arguing that he would appear weak and ineffective” in an upcoming summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev “if he were rebuffed by the Republican-controlled Senate on a major foreign policy question.”

The Senate eventually voted 78-21 to override Reagan’s veto of the sanctions legislation, but not before Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican, warned that “the thrust of this legislation is to bring about violent, revolutionary change, and after that, tyranny.” Helms and Mandela are now both dead and we know who was right.

For the record, the Northwest delegation in 1986 was entirely Republican. Oregon’s senators – Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood – and Washington’s senators – Dan Evans and Slade Gorton voted for the sanctions against South Africa and to override Reagan’s veto. Idaho’s senators Steve Symms and Jim McClure voted with Jesse Helms.

The U.S. was actually quite late in adopting a policy of isolating South Africa in part because the country’s leaders spent so much of the post-war world viewing every event in every corner of the world through the narrow prism of the Cold War. The logic was simple and wrong: Soviets supplied backing to the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela was in jail for being a leader of the ANC, therefore it must logically follow that we had to oppose the ANC. But the larger lesson here is simply that time and again in the post-war world the United States misread, from Vietnam to South Africa and even on to Iraq, the nature of national struggles over self-determination.

Successive State Departments and CIA wise guys framed nearly every issue as a struggle pitting the democratic West versus the Evil Empire, when often, as Nelson Mandela showed us, the great twilight struggles of the last half of the 20th Century were typically about more basic and more enduring things – the right to vote, the right to self determination, the right to throw off colonial shackles, the right to make your own way, the right to be treated with dignity. We too often lacked the imagination that might have allowed us envision that a man imprisoned for 27 years might walk out of his prison cell, Gandhi or King-like, and embrace a type of political and racial reconciliation that would usher in a peaceful revolution the likes of which a Jesse Helms simply could not fathom.

For most of his too short life, we must recall, his own government spied on the revolutionary Dr. King, convinced he must be a Communist agent.

As the world – and almost every American politician – rushes to get right with Mandela, we would do well to remember at least two things. Mandela was not a saint, but rather a remarkably pragmatic politician and a damn good one too, and in many ways a much better politician than some of the Americans who for so long failed to understand his motivations and talents.

The second is that Mandela was a revolutionary; a revolutionary who, fortunately for his country and the world, made the transition from advocate of armed struggle to champion of constitutional democracy. For too long his movement and the man were seen in the United States through the foggy lens of what some call  American exceptionalism, the idea that our system and our approach is automatically superior to every other system or approach. This notion, that political legitimacy can only come about as the result of a fully baked western-style Jeffersonian democracy, has driven American foreign policy since at least Woodrow Wilson and has often left us blind to the real motivations of nationalist or anti-colonial movements from Vietnam to Soweto.

Part of the legacy of Mandela and us is that the United States has often been exceptionally wrong for too long about movements like the fight to end apartheid in South Africa and wrong about the people who lead those fights. So, by all means, celebrate the life of a man who now belongs to the ages and whose name fits in the same sentence with Gandhi and Dr. King, and while doing so remember that our own history as a nation traces its origins to a messy and bloody revolution and the vision and leadership of determined, political men whose real motive was freedom.

 

Return to 1940

19410200_Senator_Robert_Taft_R-OH_Against_Lend_Lease-TAFTRobert Taft, the Ohio senator and son of a GOP president, was often called “Mr. Republican” in the 1940′s and 1950′s. He was continually on everyone’s list as a presidential candidate from the late 1930′s to the early 1950′s, but Taft never received the nomination in large part because he represented the Midwestern, isolationist wing of the GOP in the intra-party fight for supremacy that was eventually won in 1952 by Dwight Eisenhower and the eastern establishment, internationalist wing of the party.

The modern Republican Party is edging toward the same kind of foreign policy split – the John McCain interventionists vs. the Rand Paul isolationists – that for a generation helped kill Taft’s chances, and his party’s chances, of capturing the White House. While much of the focus in the next ten days will be on the important question of whether President Obama can stitch together the necessary votes in the House and Senate – Democrats have their own non-interventionists to contend with – to authorize military action against Syria, the other political fight is over the foreign policy heart and soul of the GOP.

As reported by The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens here’s some of what those in the new Taft wing of the GOP are saying:

“The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States.” Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.).

“I believe the situation in Syria is not an imminent threat to American national security and, therefore, I do not support military intervention. Before taking action, the president should first come present his plan to Congress outlining the approach, cost, objectives and timeline, and get authorization from Congress for his proposal.” Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah).

“When the United States is not under attack, the American people, through our elected representatives, must decide whether we go to war.” Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.)

Taft’s reputation for personal integrity and senatorial probity – he served as Majority Leader for a short time before his untimely death in 1953 – has guaranteed that he is remembered as one of the Congressional greats of the 20th Century. Still, as Stephen’s writes in the Journal, Taft has also suffered the same fate at the hand of history as almost all of the last century’s isolationists have. They are condemned for what Stephens calls their almost unfailingly bad judgment about foreign affairs. Taft opposed Franklin Roosevelt on Lend-Lease in 1941. He argued against the creation of NATO, which has become an enduring feature of the post-war doctrine of collective security. Taft, always the man of principle, even opposed the Nuremberg trials that sought to bring to the bar of justice the top Nazi leadership of World War II. He considered the legal proceedings, organized and managed by the victors in the war, illegal under existing international law.

In every major showdown in his three-time quest for the presidency, Taft lost to an internationalist oriented Republican: Wendell Willkie in 1940, Thomas E. Dewey in 1944 and Eisenhower in 1952. When given his chance in the White House, and with the help of one-time Taft ally Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, Eisenhower re-shaped the modern Republican Party for the rest of the century as the party most devoted to national security and most trusted to push back against Soviet-era Communism. That image lasted, more or less, from Ike to the second Bush, whose historic miscalculations in Iraq have helped create the kind of party soul searching for the GOP that Democrats struggled with in the post-Vietnam era.

A vote on Syria in the Congress will be a clear cut test of strength for the neo-isolationists in the modern Republican Party, many of whom have close connections to the Tea Party faction. Still the leaders of the new Taft wing, like Kentucky Sen. Paul, have demonstrated they are not one issues wonders when it comes to foreign policy. Paul filibustered over drone policy, has spoken out against NSA intelligence gathering and frets over foreign aid. And the polls show these skeptics are in sync with the many Americans who are sick of open ended commitments in the Middle East and the kind of “trust us, we’ve got this figured out” foreign policy of the second Bush Administration. I suspect the appeal of the neo-isolationists extends as well to younger voters, many of whom have not known an America that wasn’t regularly sending brave young men and women to fight and die in wars that seem not only to lack an end, but also an understandable and clearly defined purpose.

Bob Taft – Mr. Republican – fought and lost many of these same battles more than half a century ago and since the victors usually write the history Taft stands condemns along with many others in his party for being on the wrong side of the history of the 20th Century.

The great debate in the Congress over the next few days is fundamentally important for many reasons, not least that it is required by the Constitution, but it may also define for a generation how the party that once embraced and then rejected isolation thinks about foreign policy. If Sen. Paul can be cast as a latter day Bob Taft on matters of foreign policy; a questioner of the value and scope of America’s role in the world, who will be this generation’s Wendell Willkie or Dwight Eisenhower?

Any GOP pretender for the White House will need to calculate these issues with great precision. Gov. Chris Christie, who has yet to declare this position but seems more likely to fit in the internationalist wing of the party, must have his world atlas open to the Middle East, but those maps are likely sitting right next to the latest polls showing the increasing isolation of the party’s base; the people who will determine who gets the next shot at presiding in the White House Situation Room. During today’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on Syrian action Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another 2016 contender, voted NO reinforcing the notion that a new generation of Republicans seem willing to bring to full flower an approach to foreign policy that died about the same time as Bob Taft.

What an irony that the robust, nation building, regime change foreign policy of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, the very definition of GOP orthodoxy in the post-September 11 world, has been so quickly consigned to the dust bin of Republican policy.

Who this time will be on the right – and wrong – side of history?

[Note that Idaho Sen. James Risch joined with Paul and Rubio in voting NO on the Syrian resolution in the Foreign Relations Committee.]

 

A Failure of Politics

bigstock-syria-3770337When an American president finding himself slipping between the two stools of ill-considered military because he must “save face” or preserve “credibility,” our history shows that we’re about to make a serious, serious mistake.

From Harry Truman to George W. Bush American presidents have committed the United States military to wars based on every justification imaginable from containing Communism to changing a regime to protecting human rights. Lyndon Johnson, we now know, was afraid of being accused of being soft on Communism, so he doubled down on a failed strategy in Indochina in the 1960′s. Bush launched a war in Iraq in order to bring democracy to that made-to-British-order country and we’re still finding out – ten years on – how that mistake is playing out.

Barack Obama was elected and re-elected in no small part because he said he was determined to end America’s endless wars, but now he finds himself on the cusp of military action that could well define his presidency and jerk the violent Middle East into a wide-open regional war. As political analysts Larry Sabato says, “Syria’s in the Middle East. What could possibly go wrong?”

The President stunning mishandling of the apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria has its roots once again in the president’s remarkable disdain for the grubby, critical work of politics. He’s backed himself out on a very long limb largely because he’s refused to engage the political institutions that could have both helped shape the U.S. response to a tin-horned dictator fighting for his life, while destroying his country and given the White House the cover it should have to order – or back down from – touching off the Tomahawk missiles.

First, the Administration dismissed going to the United Nations to attempt to rally world support for action against the Syrian regime with the faulty excuse that Russia’s Vladimir Putin would surely veto effective U.N. action. Of course Putin, a guy playing his own game, would continue to defend his Syrian allies, but so what. I would have liked to have seen the impressive new U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., the noted human rights authority Samantha Power, make the world’s case to the Security Council. The contrast between the moral authority of Power and the United States and the bankrupt cynicism of the Russians, particularly when it would have all been broadcast on Al Jazeera, would have been powerful and important.  The U.N. like the U.S. Congress is politics writ large and Obama and his advisers simply blew this world-class moral authority photo opportunity because the politics apparently looked like a loser. The was miscalculation on an historic scale.

Second, when Obama effectively boxed himself in to eventual military action when he declared that Syrian use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that would demand a response, he failed to immediately engage Congress, which just happens to be required by the Constitution, but which would also have provided a political safety valve by involving Obama’s Republican critics in a decision with mind-numbing consequences.

Imagine for a moment if Obama would have immediately had the bi-partisan Congressional leadership and the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees to the White House. Even better if he could summon them to Washington from their home state politicking during the August recess. He could have publicly insisted that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee do its job and conduct hearings on just what the appropriate U.S. response might entail and let the D.C. press know that he was working the phone to talk to guys like Henry Kissinger, James Baker and Tom Foley. He could have had Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush in for a visit. In other words, he might have engaged in politics. The failure to do so is nothing short of political malpractice.

For all of his ability to employ soaring rhetoric, Obama has a curiously tin ear when it comes to using the Oval Office as the ultimate power play stage in the world. In a crisis the photo of action can be as important as the action.

Failure to embrace the time-consuming, personal and intense political engagement, both on the world and Washington stage, now finds the increasingly isolated and shrinking Obama presidency left to go it alone. It must drive the far right crazy that the French – the French! – are one of the few countries ready to help the U.S.

The once “special relationship” between London and Washington now sits discarded on the curb of the Middle East. Congressional critics from the left and right are demanding, as they should, that Congress not merely be consulted, but actually approve military action. Obama must recognize now, having failed to engage with the politics of bringing Congress along, that he might well lose a vote on military action, as British Prime Minister David Cameron did. That is a risk he simply should have been prepared to take, and as a Constitutional scholar he must know that the law and history require him to take it.

[Update: President Obama did announced today that he will request Congressional authorization for military action against Syria.]

Assume for a moment that the president had mounted a full-court political press and still lost a vote in Congress authorizing military action. Again – so what? He could look the world – and the American public in the eye – and said, “I tried, but our political system refused to engage.” Ironically, sometimes in politics you win by losing. The president could have positioned his Republican Congressional opponents as the party unwilling to take a moral and military stand against chemical weapons. In such a case he would have driven a deep wedge between the John McCain wing of the GOP and the emerging, neo-isolationist Rand Paul wing.

So, in this summer of our discontent, Obama and the country are in a tough spot. Promising to take action against Syria and failing to do so has consequences. Limited military action, particularly when there is no realistic way to anticipate what will happen the day after the action, has consequences. Failing to bring the politics along with the policy has consequences.

The stark reality of Syria, as well as the larger Middle East, is that American military power has reached its limits. None of what ails the region will be solved by a missile strike – even a limited on – and the cost in American blood and treasure in Afghanistan and Iraq is dismal proof of the folly of U.S. “boots on the ground” in a region where religious, sectarian and tribal fights have been a fixture since before Jesus confronted the Romans. As David Brooks wrote today in the Times, “Poison gas in Syria is horrendous, but the real inferno is regional. When you look at all the policy options for dealing with the Syria situation, they are all terrible or too late. The job now is to try to wall off the situation to prevent something just as bad but much more sprawling.”

Barack Obama confront this history and his own presidency with his decisions. He has made it all even more difficult by his failing at politics.

 

War and Congress

Burton K. Wheeler was a Democrat who served as United States Senator from Montana from 1922-1946. His career, as he acknowledged in his memoir, was full of controversy. Among other things, Wheeler was indicted on corruption charges and fought with powerful interests ranging from the mining companies in his adopted state to Franklin Roosevelt, a man he had once enthusiastically endorsed for president.

The FBI followed him, particularly after he criticized Roosevelt’s foreign policy prior to American entry into World War II. His patriotism was assaulted. He was deemed a Nazi sympathizer by some. He helped stop Roosevelt’s Supreme Court power play in 1937 and championed important legislation impacting utility companies and Native Americans. If you are defined in politics by your enemies, Wheeler had many. His friends included Charles Lindbergh, William E. Borah, Joe Kennedy, Huey Long and Harry Truman. He was considered a serious presidential contender in 1940. FDR put an end to that with his third term.

Wheeler’s kind of senator really doesn’t exist anymore. Senators of his generation were, of course, from their respective states, but they represented more than local interests. Wheeler and Borah and Robert Wagner and Pat Harrison, who I wrote about recently, were national legislators and the Senate was their stage. Wheeler walked that stage most prominently in 1941 when Americans were profoundly divided over how far the nation should go to provide aid to Great Britain during some of the darkest days in the history of western civilization. Wheeler battled, as he called them, “the warmongers” who he thought were altogether too eager to get the country involved in another European war.

Wheeler lost this “great debate,” the U.S. did come to the aid of the battered Brits, Japan attacked in Hawaii and the Montana senator eventually lost his seat in the Senate. This is a story I’ve tried to tell in the most recent issue of Montana – the Magazine of Western History, the respected history journal published by the Montana Historical Society.

At first blush Wheeler’s fight for non-intervention in 1941 seems like ancient history. Americans fought the good and necessary war to stop fascism and the Greatest Generation is justly celebrated. But, like so much of our history, the fight over American foreign policy prior to Pearl Harbor has a relevance that echoes down to us more than 70 years later as the morning headlines tell of President Obama’s parley in the Oval Office with Hamid Karzai.

We are apparently at the end of the beginning of our longest war. Americans have been fighting and dying in the mountains and deserts and streets of Afghanistan for nearly a dozen years. As we prepare to leave that “graveyard of empires” (leave more or less) the question is begged – have we accomplished what we intended?  And when we are gone will we leave behind such a corrupt, incompetent government that the Taliban and assorted other bad guys will again quickly take charge?

Before 1941, when Montana’s Wheeler and others raised their objection to an interventionist foreign policy, the United States was comfortable with a modest role in the world. The county was stunned by the violence and by what seemed at the time to be the ultimate futility of the Great War. During the 1920′s and 1930′s Americans embraced their traditional attitude of remaining aloof from European disputes, gladly eschewed any ambition to supplant the British as the world’s policeman and the country happily retreated behind two deep oceans. After 1941, hardened by the trials of another world war and the threat of Communist expansionism, Americans embraced a national security state and we have never really looked back.

Today, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders points out, the United States spends more on its military than the rest of the world’s nations combined and we’ve tripled defense spending since the mid-1990′s. Despite the sobering experience of Vietnam, we rather casually, at least by 1941 standards, deploy our troops around the world with certain belief that such power can impact all events. Americans have been camped in Europe since 1945 – 80,000 are still deployed – protecting our NATO allies who increasing reduce their own military outlays.

After a nine year war in Iraq, a dozen years in Afghanistan, with deployments and bases from Australia to Turkey, and given the need to confront a national fiscal crisis one might think that America’s aggressively interventionist foreign policy would be at the center of Washington’s debates, but no. Once the U.S. Senate had such debates; debates that engaged the American public and where Congress asserted its Constitutional responsibility to actually declare war. But even after September 11 the national foreign policy “debate’ has more often been about the need to expand and deploy American power, rather than how to make it more effective. The current shaky state of the nation’s budget would seem reason enough to really have a foreign and defense policy debate again, but even more importantly Americans and their leaders should, with cold and calculating focus, assess our role in the world.

George W. Bush once famously advocated a “humble” foreign policy and disowned “nation building.” Bush’s rhetoric, of course, hardly matched his policy and a dozen years later, with little debate and perhaps even less sober reflection, we wind down a war that likely will again offer new proof of the limits of American power.

Montana’s Wheeler lost his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1946 largely because he was deemed out of touch with the post-war world. His old-fashioned attitudes about expressing American power were out of fashion. But were they? At least he forced a debate; a debate similar to the one that we need again today.

 

The Water’s Edge

Arthur Vandenberg was a Republican U.S. Senator from Michigan from 1928 – 1951 and a man who believed passionately in a bipartisan foreign policy. Vandenberg might have been president. He tried for the nomination a couple of times, but his real niche was foreign policy and under his cautious and conservative hand the country came to a policy that “politics stops at the water’s edge.”

Vandenberg’s approach to foreign policy evolved over time, which is another way of saying he changed his mind. He went from a staunch isolationist in the 1930′s to helping Harry Truman get Congressional approval for the Marshall Plan and NATO in the 1940′s. Yes, you read that right – a Republican senator helping a Democratic president on something really important. Once upon a time that kind of thing really did happen.

Here’s a guess that the political news for the next several days will be all about the Middle East, the tragic deaths of American diplomatic personnel in Libya and the deepening tensions around Iran. In other words, the presidential campaign just went off message in a major way and in a manner that neither campaign can hope to control. The only thing the candidates, and particularly challenger Mitt Romney, can do is talk about the issues.

Romney has spent most of today cleaning up after a statement he issued too quickly and without all the facts as the awful events in Libya were spinning out of control late yesterday.  His midnight statement condemning the Obama Administration is being widely regarded as an amazing piece of amateur hour time for someone who hopes to be Commander-in-Chief.

Ronald Reagan’s gifted speechwriter Peggy Noonan said Romney wasn’t doing himself any favors with his hair trigger attack.

“I was thinking as he spoke,” Noonan told Politico, “I think I belong to the old school of thinking that in times of great drama and heightened crisis, and in times when something violent has happened to your people, I always think discretion is the better way to go. When you step forward in the midst of a political environment and start giving statements on something dramatic and violent that has happened, you’re always leaving yourself open to accusations that you are trying to exploit things politically.” Exactly.

Romney’s campaign will now be compared to John McCain’s four years when the Arizona Senator – remember the suspension of his campaign during the banking crisis – as a man who displays questionable judgment in the heat of the moment.

The hawkish editorial page of the Washington Post, which has often been critical of Obama,  has it about right:

“As for Mr. Romney, he would do well to consider the example of Republican former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who issued a statement Wednesday lamenting ‘the tragic loss of life at our consulate,’ praising [Ambassador Chris] Stevens as ‘a wonderful officer and a terrific diplomat’ and offering ‘thoughts and prayers’ to ‘all the loved ones of the fallen.’ That was the appropriate response.”

As the Senate Historian has written about a Republican from a different age:  ”When [Sen. Arthur] Vandenberg spoke, the Senate Chamber filled with senators and reporters, eager to hear what he had to say. His words swayed votes and won national and international respect for his nonpartisan, consensus-building, statesmanlike approach to foreign policy.”

The Senate voted in 2004 to place Vandenberg’s portrait in the lovely Senate Reception Room, a place reserved for the images of the greatest of the greats who once served the country.

Give Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he really does believe Barack Obama is mishandling our foreign policy and is profoundly troubled by the President’s leadership. Fair enough. But with diplomats dead in a troubled land and the Arab Street holding the potential for even more turmoil, smart policy and smart politics would have been to simply say: “America has one president at a time and there will be time enough to sort out the politics.”

Simple rule of politics: When a campaign is transparently seen as trying to score political points – it doesn’t.

 

 

Obama the Warrior

No More Soft on National Security

One of the great strategies in politics is to take your opponent’s greatest strength and turn that advantage  into a liability. It’s not easy to do, but when it’s done well it can be brutally effective.

The “swiftboating” of Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic candidate for president, is perhaps the best example in recent memory of how effective attacking the strength of an opponent can be. 

In Kerry’s case, a legitimate war hero – the guy was awarded the Silver and Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts for service in Vietnam – became, thanks to attacks on that military record, a questionable patriot, a liar and, in some minds, a fraud. “Swiftboating” has now entered the political lexicon as a verb meaning – to smear effectively.

You may remember that when Kerry accepted the presidential nomination in 2004 he stepped to the podium and saluted, military style. That was the beginning of the end. While it was obvious to most independent observers that Kerry didn’t deserve the swiftboat attacks and was obviously caught off guard by charges that turned the truth on its head, it’s also true that he  and his campaign did a horrible job responding. Still, the well-bankrolled truth turning – an early glimpse of what we’ll see this fall from Super PAC’s – worked remarkably well and George W. Bush, the guy who actually had avoided Vietnam service, got re-elected.

[I'll offer the not terribly original prediction that the "swiftboating" of John Kerry will be studied years from now by political analysts as a classic example of a big smear that was improperly handled by the candidate-victim.]

The 2004 attacks on Kerry also worked, in part, because they seemed to confirm a narrative, dating back to George McGovern in 1972, that Democrats just aren’t as truthworthy when it comes to the nation’s security as Republicans. Ironically, McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot who opposed the Vietnam War, also did not – or chose not – to make a virtue of his distinguished military record. Not until Stephen Ambrose’s 2001 book – The Wild Blue - that featured McGovern’s story did many Americans know that the South Dakota senator and presidential candidate was a genuine, if deeply conflicted, hero of the Greatest Generation.

Now comes Barack Obama and the anniversary of the Navy Seal mission to – use the President’s term – “take out” Osama bin Laden. As TIME’s Jon Meacham has written, Republicans are “shocked, shocked” that the Obama team is taking credit, politicizing if you will, the bringing to justice of the world’s foremost terrorist.

“Here, however, is the issue,” Meacham writes. “Since at least 1968, Democrats have traditionally been more circumspect than their Republican foes in presidential politics. The lesson of the Clinton years and of Obama’s win of both the nomination and the general election in 2008 is that Democrats need to be as tough as JFK was (tough was a favorite Kennedy term). Is the bin Laden ad fair to Romney? No, not really. But politics is not for the faint of heart.”

Here’s my take: Obama has so far been successful in taking away from Republicans one of the historically sharpest arrows in their quiver. Try as they might, Republicans and their presidential candidate can’t pull a Kerry or McGovern on Obama. The GOP and some commentators charge that Obama has overplayed the bin Laden events of a year ago and maybe so, but here’s the issue in that regard: any day Mitt Romney is talking about foreign policy, and he’s been talking about it for days, is a bad day for his campaign.

Obama owns these issues in a way that no Democrat has favorably owned a set of foreign policy issues since Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House. Count on Obama to make the case as the campaign goes forward that he inherited two wars, shut one down in the face of critics who said he was wrong to do so, and then gave the order to take out the guy who made the other war, Afghanistan, necessary.

Frankly, Republicans and Romney, in particular, are committing political malpractice by attempting to compete with the president on these issues. Rather than going to a New York City firehouse yesterday to remember 9-11, Romney should have gone to a military hospital and quietly met with a few soldiers after issuing a statement congratulating the Navy Seals for getting bin Laden. He looks weak and guilty of “me, too” when he says he’d have given the order to go after the Al Quada leader, particularly since he suggested during the last campaign that he wouldn’t.

Romney’s campaign will succeed or fail on the basis of whether he presents a coherent economic message backed by a strategy for growing jobs and economic security for Americans. The Obama campaign has rope-a-doped their opponent into punching below his weight on foreign policy, certainly not the issues Romney wants to run on, and every day that happens, Romney loses.

 As for the charge that Obama is overplaying the bin Laden success, give that great political analyst Jon Stewart the last word. After all, George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and proclaimed Mission Accomplished in Iraq, or as Stewart said, “he spiked the ball before the game began.” Stewart’s point: Bush, like Obama, would have ridden the issue of being the good guy who got the bad guy as far as possible. In a very basic sense, Obama is again capitalizing on statements from Romney’s past that today look less than, well, astute.

Obama may be overplaying the events of a year ago, but as the baseball great Dizzy Dean once said, “it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.”