When John F. Kennedy was running for President – and in his Senate career before that – he was primarily interested in foreign policy, and generally indifferent towards domestic policy.
There were several reasons for this. It was partly, most biographers believe, to distinguish himself from his powerful father, who had a nearly infallible hand in domestic politics, but blundered spectacularly on the world stage, prepared to surrender Europe to Hitler and Stalin. It was partly, perhaps, because he desired greatness, and Presidents don’t get monuments on the Mall for the passage of domestic legislation. And it was partly because the subject of foreign policy intellectually engaged him in a way that, say, the economy did not.
But it was also because, as he himself put it to a reporter five days after his election, ”because the issue of war and peace is involved, and the survival of perhaps the planet, possibly our system."
Kennedy’s political career spanned the tensest moments of the Cold War, so I believe he was right to think that the most important job of the American President in that time was to avoid nuclear war.
We are now nine months into the Obama Administration, and it’s been a shaky nine months on the world stage. From the serious (last week’s surrender to Russia on the European missile defense) to the symbolic (Scotland’s release of the Lockerbie bomber) to the silly (his gift to Prime Minister Gordon Brown of a box set of American movies that are incompatible with British DVD players), we’ve learned that the world’s problems didn’t go away just because Dubya moved back to Midland.
But it is Iran that is proving to be Obama’s true testing ground. I believe that he has blown every single move so far – but that it is still within his power to make his mark as a statesman.
His first blown move was the announcement, as a candidate, that he would meet with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and Korea in his first year as President, without preconditions. His rival for the nomination, who is now our Secretary of State, called this announcement "irresponsible and naïve”. Most would agree.
His next blunder was in the aftermath of the June 12 Iranian election. Thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest the clerical tyranny of Tehran, and hoped for some rhetorical support from the American President. They got very little, very late.
Now comes news that Iran is building a secret underground plant to manufacture nuclear fuel. Since Iran has 300 years reserves of oil, as well as a crumbling economy, we can safely ignore Tehran's claims that the plant is for energy purposes. Iran is obviously making a significant investment in the development of nuclear weapons.
Obama is determined to be the anti-Bush. Bush went to war in Iraq over the belief that Iraq had WMDs - a belief shared by the intelligence services of France, England, and Germany, most of the former Senators in the Obama Administration, and the eponymous members of the Clinton/Gore Administration.
Obama seems determined to act in completely the opposite way with Iran - to, as he put it in his inaugural speech, "extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
It should be obvious that Iran is unwilling to unclench its fist, and that Obama risks looking like those fools on the rooftop in the movie Independence Day, joyfully welcoming the alien ships to Los Angeles, right up the moment they got vaporized.
But I believe Obama is smart and flexible, and realizes it is now time to be tough - while still maintaining his commitment to diplomacy. The key here is Russia and China, both of whom have been unwilling to look the other way as rogue nations like Iran do what they like, as long as they keep the oil pumping.
If President Obama can somehow unite international opposition to Iran, and back that opposition with meaningful sanctions and the isolation of Iran, he can redeem his current feckless approach. And if he recognizes that his true job is nothing short of saving the world, rather than saving General Motors, he will earn the respect of the world.