Is it OK to criticize the president when he's abroad?

After Barack Obama, on a trip to Seoul, South Korea, was overheard telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he would have “more flexibility” on missile defense after his presumed reelection, Republicans — and Democrats, too, for that matter — sharply criticized the president. One Republican, though, criticized the criticizers.

When Obama is overseas, House Speaker John Boehner said, “it’s appropriate that people not be critical of him or of our country.”

Today on Fox and Friends, former GOP presidential nominee and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said he respectfully disagrees with Boehner:

“I understand John Boehner’s point and I respect that, but this is a very serious issue. This is very serious. No matter where the president is, if he makes a statement that I think could endanger the United States national security interest, I have to respond no matter where the President of the United States is,” McCain said on “Fox & Friends.”

He added, “All I can say is that I respectfully disagree with Speaker Boehner. When something that important is said by the President of the United States of America, we have to respond.” …

“The president is ready to back off of what has been our position on missile defense since Ronald Reagan,” the Arizona Republican said. “The President of the United States, Bara[c]k Obama, who back some years ago said he didn’t believe in it anyway is going to be ‘flexible.’ That is very, very revealing about this president, and what does it have to say about an unfettered President of the United States on a myriad of other issues? We certainly know his liberal leanings on a variety of fronts.”

McCain added, “Flexible means you’re going to compromise and I think that’s very dangerous, frankly, for the safety of the United States of America.”

So, which is it? Would it be more appropriate to refrain from criticism of the president for as long as the president is away on official business?

It’s rare that I prefer John McCain’s approach to an issue over John Boehner’s, but, in this case, I think the former nominee is right.

Traditionally, Americans have refrained from criticizing America and/or the president while they are abroad. Back in the day, even leftists abided by that rule. For example, jazz singer Josh White, while on a speaking and singing tour of Europe with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1950, repeatedly refused to sing the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.” He didn’t want to broadcast the ugliest aspects of America to the world. Clearly, that’s changed. Remember, in 2003, when Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines made a rude remark about President George W. Bush at a London concert?

Personally, I’d like to see the revival of that rule. When you tour the world, stay positive about America, people! That goes for the president, too. No more apologies or preemptive promises of “flexibility.”

Note, though, that such a rule doesn’t mean that Americans abroad — including the president — have immunity from at-home criticism. The whole idea is to keep the criticism at home. In the case of the president’s recent comments, the criticism was all here. It’s not like the Americans with him in South Korea jumped his case and embarrassed him in front of Medvedev.
John McCain has an important point that goes beyond etiquette, though. A patriot’s loyalty is to his country before his president.

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