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Sunday, Dec. 6, 2009

Disgusting surfeit of anti-Obama remarks

LOS ANGELES — Some necessary context for President Barack Obama's long-awaited Afghanistan policy speech: Foreign policy performance is anything but the total measure of a president's worth. America's domestic politics, not to mention its elections, are more often than not driven by the forces, and failures, of economics.

But get foreign policy matters seriously wrong and the president of the world's only superpower walks around looking like a three-legged dog. Just recall Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam failure, which more or less wound up defining his tragic presidency.

Obama's address at West Point last week was remarkably clear and direct. This relatively young, amazingly articulate man was pretty much at his best. He was (a) the college professor lecturing on the historical background, (b) the first strategist pointing out the tradeoffs and options, and (c) the cheerleader in chief trying to pump up the troops and the American public to rally round the urgent cause.

Obama made a good case that the cause was indeed just, reminding everyone of the retaliation's origins and of the unforgivable atrocities in New York eight years ago. But whether the cause is in fact doable is the harder case to make. In this century alone both the British and the Russians tried, and failed. Are we that much better than our predecessors?

The Obama presidency perforce is eight years late to the issue. That was when, overwhelmingly, momentum, world opinion and domestic opinion were all united in our favor. In life, it is said, timing is everything. But then is not now — and only a mystical time machine can wind us back to when it might all have worked for us in the land of the elusive Afghans.

The president will be criticized for proposing a time frame that gets American troops out of there in 18 months. But he should be congratulated instead, especially for calling attention to the limits of our patience and treasure. Here the president seemed to be more levelheaded than his much-older predecessor. He repeatedly emphasizes that American power has its limits and that the piggy bank is far from overflowing these days.

His recent trip to Asia underscored this new reality — and stuck a welcome knife in the old myth of American omnipotence. It was good that he bowed graciously to the Japanese emperor (maybe now the Japanese will begin to forgive him for sending a poorly qualified new ambassador there).

It was good that his public conduct in China reflected the reality that Beijing has become America's banker in chief. And the mutual warmth paraded publicly in Seoul with South Korea's heretofore crusty President Lee Myung Bak was a tonic for sore eyes, especially after watching years of snarls and barks and threats between Seoul and Washington.

The Obama administration's foreign policy looks to be much closer to the reality of the world today. Yes, America needs to be less preachy and unilateral.

What's amazing, then, is that critics who should know better are calling the Obama approach a bust after just 10 months in office. A recent article in Foreign Affairs about the U.S. foreign policy establishment carried a blistering critique of Obama's recent Asia trip. Its basic point was that our president parted no seas and changed no water to wine. Well.

Americans generally admire our free and open criticism of big shots and of the presidents. And there's no reason for any president not to get his fair share of hard hits and lumps. But the operative word has to be fair. To say that the results of the Asia trip were so bad that "Mr. Obama should have taken a well-deserved vacation in Hawaii" is not fair criticism but contemptuous commentary.

The respected author, Leslie H. Gelb, is a former government official and New York Times columnist. Of all people he should know better. Some presidential trips are indeed result-oriented. But others are simply fancy versions of meet-and-greet sessions — a wholly appropriate trek for a first-year president. If even well-regarded "mainstream" commentators are prepared to declare this presidency null and void before its first anniversary, let me part company with them now.

Obama needs fair criticism, but he could also use a fair and justified degree of support, especially at this early stage. The world economy is still shaky, the Middle East increasingly seems like a tinderbox, and high levels of unemployment, always-dangerous, look to be headed further skyward.

At this time of national emergency, why escalate the criticism irrationally? Why would anyone want this president to fail?

Tom Plate is a former editorial page editor and Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Currently he is writing a trilogy of books on Asian political figures. © 2009 Pacific Perspective Media Center

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