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Was there ever a golden age of U.S. foreign policy?

Was there ever a golden age of U.S. foreign policy?

Things are so tough even the past isn’t what it used to be. That is the message of Woody Allen’s lovely, good-hearted new movie Midnight in Paris. While the movie’s goal is to enhance our appreciation for the present by puncturing the "golden age syndrome" of those who yearn for impossibly beautiful cultural yesteryears, it inadvertently sends an important political message as well.

Starting this summer, a parade of Republican presidential wannabes will offer a message of recycled hope, promising to restore America to good old days goodness. Candidates and possible candidates like Tim Pawlenty and Sarah Palin already invoke Ronald Reagan so often it’s hard not to conclude that he has become the reverse Voldemort of the Republican Party, "He Who Must Always Be Named." They and their Republican primary opponents will call so often for it to be "morning in America" that I wouldn’t be surprised if Denny’s sponsors Palin’s tour bus to promote its Grand Slam breakfasts.

But of course, for those of us who actually lived through the 1980s, it was mostly bad haircuts, Iran-Contra and the music of Dexys Midnight Runners.

Similarly, there will be efforts from candidates from both parties to associate themselves with past "golden ages" of U.S. foreign policy. President Obama will certainly cite the prosperity of the Clinton years or seek to channel the charisma of John F. Kennedy or the toughness of Harry Truman or the true leader of the free world stature of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Republicans will — as they did after the Osama raid — seek to assert that Bush 43-era resoluteness was key to fighting terror. Or they will argue that Bush 41-era mastery of the end of the Cold War proves that the GOP knows foreign policy best, that they can stand up to evil like Reagan did to Gorbachev or even that they are the party of Nixon-Kissingerian savvy or Eisenhower’s ability to epitomize everything you want in a commander-in-chief.

And just as similarly, any careful analysis of the foreign policy of each of these eras produces as many discordant notes as you get when you try to harmonize reality and the myths of the Jazz Age highlighted in Allen’s movie. Hemingway was rugged and tough but also a boor and suicidal. Fitzgerald was elegant and witty and an alcoholic married to a disturbed woman. Salvador Dali may have been flamboyant but in reality he was a second-rate artist. 

Try as his opponents might to cast the chaos and perceptions of America in decline of the Age of Obama in contrast with past glory days, the reality is that every president since Roosevelt (and including him) has blundered and misstepped their way through their presidencies. It is one of the most pronounced threads linking together different eras of U.S. foreign policy. To say so with regard to Bush 43 comes as a shock to no one. But the objective observer can’t help but note that Clinton was uneasy with foreign policy his first four years in office and had to cope with Somalia, Rwanda, fumbling in Bosnia, the rise of Osama and the accumulation of unacceptable global financial risk during his tenure. George H.W. Bush ran a tight foreign-policy ship but his administration is seen by many to have fumbled on Yugoslavia, as being too soft on China post-Tiananmen, and as not having moved fast enough on eliminating Soviet nukes and left too many unanswered questions after the Gulf War. Reagan had Iran-Contra, tolerated the intolerable from Saddam, helped arm Osama, and like most U.S. presidents played too much footsy with the Saudis. Carter the micro-manager had bitter internecine fighting among his team (as did most presidents) and had Afghanistan and the hostage crisis and the United States in decline. Ford was not in office long enough to pick on, but he certainly did look the other way on abuses in Timor. Nixon had Vietnam and a leadership crisis and blots on his human rights record from Cambodia to Chile. Johnson also was undone by Vietnam, and Kennedy by the Bay of Pigs, his missteps in Vienna, by his hubris and his own contributions to the Southeast Asian debacle.

And so on. In fact, looking back, one can’t help but note that the many of the same aggravating and unresolved issues we face today have been faced by many successive presidents and that of the mistakes Obama has made — from doubling down in a war he should have wound down more quickly to having trouble getting his arms around Israel and the Palestinians to failing to contain risks on the international economic scene because of too much catering to the super-empowered in the financial community — have been made by his predecessors.

Which leads to the question: Has there ever really been a golden age of U.S. foreign policy? You could hardly say most of Eisenhower’s days given Korea, the Cold War, the seedlings of Vietnam or the seedlings of the Cuba crises or Truman’s given Hiroshima or Korea. Was it Roosevelt’s? Even though many on his team thought him a dreadful manager and even though we were too late to intervene to stop the Holocaust and too tolerant of Soviet abuses? Probably. Probably it was in those couple of years right at the end of World War II and after … when America’s alliance was working at its best and then the power of that alliance was put to use piecing together the international system. Might it have been the world of George H.W. Bush at the end of the Cold War? Possibly, for similar reasons. (Which is to say a good portion of it was having the good fortune to be around to receive credit for the hard work of others who went before … while possessing the skills necessary not to screw it up.)

We were especially strong at both of those moments, which in turn leads to the probably accurate conclusion that we do foreign policy better when dealing from strength. But even then, as in the rest of life, and as in Midnight in Paris, it is hard not to conclude that the golden cast some past events achieve is primarily the result of the dim lighting in the recesses of our memories.