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Jay Evensen: Obama could use a dose of 1980s foreign policy right now

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 12:20 p.m. MDT

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama answer a question during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla.  (Win McNamee, Associated Press) Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama answer a question during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. (Win McNamee, Associated Press)

President Obama may want to pick up the phone. It seems the 1980s are calling, and they want to lend him some foreign policy advice.

Candidates always try to let loose with a memorable zinger during high-profile debates. Ronald Reagan’s condescending and highly effective, “There you go again,” summed up Jimmy Carter’s penchant for big government and provided a pithy one-liner for his campaign.

Lloyd Bentsen gained a similar advantage when he told Dan Quayle, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” That line has endured even though Bentsen and Michael Dukakis lost the election.

So it was understandable that Barack Obama would try for a similar zinger when, during a 2012 debate with Republican candidate Mitt Romney, he said, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”

Obama won the election, so many people might not remember that line, but it has all the relevance in the world right now (and thanks to theblaze.com for reminding people about it). He threw it in Romney’s face because Romney had suggested Russia posed a major foreign threat to the United States.

This was a few months after Obama had been caught on an open mic telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he needed “space” because after the election he would have “more flexibility.”

Now the president finds himself with little flexibility, indeed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine puts the United States and its allies in a position of appearing helpless while a nation whose people have been protesting for freedom find themselves at the mercy of a suddenly resurgent Russia.

Russia, it seems, is now the nation’s No. 1 foreign policy concern. North Korea may shoot missiles into the sea, but it is run by a fanatic who has few allies willing to follow him out of the loony bin. Iran poses a regional threat but lately has been willing to negotiate. Al-Qaida remains unpredictable and dangerous, but essentially is a loose confederation of outlaws. But Russia can upset the world’s geopolitical map.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., believes Obama’s policies emboldened Vladimir Putin to feel he could take liberties in Ukraine. Speaking to Fox News, he said this started when the administration retreated on siting a missile defense system in Poland and Czechoslovakia. More recently, Obama was effectively outmaneuvered by Putin in Syria, where the president supposedly had drawn a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, which Syria had crossed with impunity.

“I think Putin is playing chess, and I think we're playing marbles,” Rogers said. “And I don't think it's even close.”

But to be fair, Obama isn’t the first president to be caught off-guard by Putin. George W. Bush was helpless when Putin ordered troops into Georgia in 2008. This was an embarrassing miscalculation, considering Bush once said about Putin, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy."

In an excellent piece in National Review, Ron Fournier summed up the naiveté of Bush, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry by saying, “They're like new guys at a dangerous bar admiring the drapes while their wallets walk out the door.”

Putin sees an opportunity to reassert part of the Russian sphere of influence that was lost when the Soviet Union fell. He has, for more than a decade, posed a dangerous threat to freedom and U.S. foreign policy, even if U.S. leaders never perceived it as such.

The 2012 election was decided a long time ago, so there is no use in dwelling on how Romney clearly saw a reality Obama felt worthy of ridicule. But it is not unreasonable to say the United States should begin to treat Russia as one its biggest foreign threats, and that Obama should understand that the more timid the U.S. appears with its military, the more confident Putin appears to be with his.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.

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