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By Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama praised the potential of American leadership around the globe on Wednesday while laying out a new definition of that term, downplaying military might and emphasizing diplomacy, alliances and the will to “lead by example.”

Standing before a crowd of 1,000 new Army officers at the U.S. Military Academy’s graduation ceremony in West Point, New York, Obama commissioned them to be part of a team that extends beyond the armed forces to include diplomats and development experts.

“America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will,” Obama told the cadets. “The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership.

“But U.S. military action cannot be the only, or even primary, component of our leadership in every instance,” Obama said. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

In the sweeping commencement speech, Obama rejected critics’ suggestions that he is an isolationist because of his unwillingness to commit military force to end the crisis in Syria or to threaten anything more than sanctions to limit the Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Instead, Obama embraced the label “interventionism” even as he cited presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Roosevelt and Truman in making a case that the U.S. should think long and hard before committing its military.

In discussing the U.S. response in Syria, Obama announced that he will work with Congress to ramp up support for moderate factions in the opposition that are opposed not only to President Bashar Assad but also to extremist rebels.

But he also seized on the case of Syria to underscore his principle of using the military only when American core interests are at stake, defining that as when “our people are threatened, when our livelihood is at stake or when the security of our allies is in danger.”

On the other hand, when such issues don’t pose a direct threat to the U.S., he said, the threshold for military action is higher and requires American leaders to mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.

Just a day after announcing that he will complete the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2016, Obama described for the graduating cadets the new threat he says the country is now facing from the Middle East to the Sahel region of Africa.

The principal threat to the U.S. no longer comes from a centralized al-Qaida leadership, Obama said, but rather from a diffuse array of affiliates and extremists, many of them with agendas focused on the countries where they operate.

“This lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but heightens the danger to U.S. personnel overseas, as we saw in Benghazi; or less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi,” Obama said. “We need a strategy that matches this diffuse threat; one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin, or stir up local resentments.”

That strategy, he said, depends on using a range of tools including diplomacy, development, sanctions and isolation, along with appeals to international law and, where “necessary and effective,” multilateral military action.

“We must do so because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, and less likely to lead to costly mistakes,” he said.

Photo via Junko Kimura-Matsumoto/Jana Press/Zuma Press/MCT
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Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.