I recently came across the original of this color slide I shot from the Staten Island Ferry in 1976, the Bicentennial year, of the World Trade Center ascending majestically above the New York skyline into the fading dusk. Looking at the towers now, it's hard not to reflect on the difference between this time in 2001 and the present, and how what presidents don't do is often as important as what they do.
9/11 was a shocking, terrible crime that haunts us to this day. Every nation on earth would have done its best to find and punish the perpetrators of such an attack. It doesn't follow that every nation would have quickly launched two wars that lasted more than a decade and threatened to permanently militarize the United States. That was a decision rushed into by fallible men and women who we now know made a mistake. If Pres. Bush had decided on a more focused response with broad international cooperation (the worldwide good will extended to America in response to the tragedy was real and powerful) the history of the world in the intervening years might have been a good deal less bloody and catastrophic.
In recent days, Pres. Obama faced another crisis and widespread pressure to rush into military action. It looked as if the US, Britain and France were about to act. Then the British Parliament blinked. That seemed to give the President second thoughts, and he also blinked, referring the use of military force to a Congress that didn't seem likely to approve it. And now we're seeing a possible diplomatic solution that's encouraging, though by no means a sure thing.
Pres. Obama has taken a lot of heat for his response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria, but his actions have been in keeping with other presidents who have stepped back from the brink. Eisenhower blinked. He seemed to dither when under pressure to help the French in Indochina, but by sending the proposal to Congress he effectively killed it. President Kennedy pulled back after the illegal Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba started, an invasion planned by the previous administration that he had unwisely allowed to go forward on the advice of his advisers. And in the Cuban Missile Crisis, he may have averted a nuclear holocaust by resisting pressure for a military strike, acting on a more conciliatory Soviet back channel communication, rather than their more bellicose public statements.
It's good to have a president who thinks twice before using force. I'm glad he did and hope something positive comes of this.