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Opinion: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Especially presidents.
BOSTON — The 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan came and went last week with barely a ripple in the national psyche or more than few words of acknowledgement from the presidential candidates.
Since Oct. 7, 2001, 1,802 United States soldiers, Marines and airmen have lost their lives in Afghanistan — 356 this year and three so far this month. You would think that the longest war in American history would be front and center in the burgeoning presidential campaign but, sadly, that is not the case.
And then, of course, there’s the Iraq War, grinding on toward its ninth year with 4,477 American military personnel killed, including 47 this year, and many thousands more wounded. And we must not forget the many tens of thousands of Afghani and Iraqi civilians also killed as these wars drag on.
The men and women who hope to be elected president of the United States in November 2012 would be wise to tuck American philosopher George Santayana’s famous admonition into their pocket or pocketbook and pull it out at least once each day as a reminder: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Santayana famously admonished. Never has that been truer than with the global issues America faces today.
Before he became president in Janunary 2001, George W. Bush had seldom in his life traveled abroad and his campaign was centered on domestic issues such as lowering income taxes and improving education. Fate had a different narrative in store for Bush. Foreign policy ended up dominating both his terms in office and it is George W. Bush who holds the dubious distinction of being the president who started more foreign wars — two — than any other president in American history.
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Only James Monroe (1817-1825) and Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) matched Bush in the number of wars begun during their presidencies — also two — but those were wars here at home in a very different America: the Indian Wars of 1817-21 and the First Seminole War under Monroe, and the Black Hawk War (1832) and the Second Seminole War (1835-42) under Jackson.
Post World War II American history reveals that no matter what a candidate for president may have believed was important as he campaigned, no matter what he or she may have wished to have as a legacy, the flow of events in the world beyond U.S. borders usually overwhelms the presidential agenda.
John F. Kennedy came close to nuclear Armageddon over the Cuban missile crisis and he began our long nightmare in Vietnam.
Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was destroyed by the Vietnam War and he stunned the nation by refusing to run for a second term.
More than any recent U.S. president, Richard Nixon had a deep interest in global issues and arguably his greatest accomplishment was forging the historic re-opening of relations with Communist China. Nixon also eventually brought the tragic Vietnam War to a close.
Jimmy Carter’s political fortunes died in the desert sands of Iran on the failed mission to rescue American hostages in Tehran.
Ronald Reagan’s presidency was tarnished by interventions in Central America (remember the Iran Contra Affair?) and the invasion of the tiny island of Grenada. But it was the devastating bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon 28 years ago this month that gave Reagan a punishing lesson in foreign intervention. Truck bombs blew up two buildings housing U.S. and French military forces and 241 Marines died, the deadliest day for the Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
President George H. W. Bush involved America in the First Persian Gulf War in 1990 and those after-effects are still with us today. Only President Bill Clinton avoided any significant overseas military conflict.
President Obama inherited the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War as well as the overall war against Islamic extremism. The president has withdrawn most U.S. forces from Iraq but he has expanded our involvement in Afghanistan, ordered an enormous escalation in the use of drone attacks in Pakistan and now in Yemen, and, of course, it was on his watch that Osama bin Laden was hunted down and killed by U.S. Navy Seals.
It is undeniably true that America has staggering problems here at home, not the least of which is our weak and faltering economy. The protests against Wall Street are emblematic of an awakening to how much we have mortgaged our future and people are justifiably angry.
And yet it is virtually certain that global issues will come to take a prominent, if not a central place in the work of the next president, whoever that may be. That is why it is so important over the next 12 months that the candidates be forced to address and debate the major foreign policy issues of our time. America’s role in the world, and the impact of the world on America, have never been more important than they are right now and will continue to be in the years ahead.
GlobalPost was created to address the need, now as much as any other time in American history, for reliable, honest reporting on the vast array of complex and important issues happening each day across the world. We are dedicated to doing all we can to report on the foreign policy challenges facing this country and we hope the candidates for president will do the same.
Phil Balboni is chief executive officer and co-founder of GlobalPost and writes a column on national and international affairs.