Ronald Reagan amid the Iran-Contra scandal, 1986 (Photo: Dennis Cook/AP)
On Thursday, CNN's Global Public Square posted the responses of eight historians and analysts to the question, "Who Was the Best Foreign Policy President?" A majority named Franklin D. Roosevelt, but there was also a high level of support for the first George Bush (no one named the second one). One commentator named Ronald Reagan, a response matched by Thomas Jefferson and my friend David Ryan's selection of Jimmy Carter.
Then, at the end, I spoiled the party:
I don’t think there is a best, at least in the post-1945 world, because each of them has been limited by the demands of American power. Franklin D. Roosevelt might have prevailed with a vision of the “international” had he not died in office, but Truman and Eisenhower were both caught up in the confrontation with the Soviet Union – the good of the Marshall Plan has to be set alongside not-so-good U.S. interventions outside Western Europe. Kennedy’s inaugural address is one of the most aggressive speeches ever delivered and partly-implemented, Johnson sank in Vietnam, and Nixon complemented “détente” with a cynical U.S. policy that rampaged through much of the world from Cambodia to East Timor to Chile. Reagan? Overrated – the fortuitous economic exhaustion of the Soviet Union saved him from a less-exalted reputation built on the excesses of U.S. power, such as Iran-Contra and the aftermath of 1980s Afghanistan.
Jimmy Carter could have made a difference, but his well-intentioned attempt to shift U.S. policy to international justice and rights was sabotaged by the Soviets, Congress, and an inability to deal with cases like Iran.
But the one lost chance of “best” that sticks with me is seeing the last overseas speech of Bill Clinton, given in December 2000 in Warwick, England. He spoke in a tired but eloquent voice of the necessity to meet the challenges of climate change and global warming, epidemics and basic health care, and the vast divide in living standards. And I thought, “Great speech. What have you been doing for the last eight years?”