It was Winston Churchill who first used that term, "the crunch," in that way. It means, of course, that crisis when a leader has to make a judgment. It is when lives, perhaps millions of them, hang on the outcome of the decision the leader makes.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower faced such a crunch on June 5, 1944 . Storms had already delayed for 24 hours his long-planned invasion of Normandy . There appeared to be a momentary break in the weather. Could he afford to go now and risk the largest landing ever being disrupted and defeated by severe storms on the beaches? Or, could he keep tens of thousands of heavily armed and ready men on board their ships, getting sicker and weaker by the hour? In that crunch, General Eisenhower listened to all the competing claims, all the contradictory advice. Then he said quietly: "OK. Let's go."
President Kennedy faced his own crunch in October, 1962. Should he invade Cuba and battle the Soviet troops who were manning missiles at bases around the island country? Should he first bomb those missile sites and risk World War III ? Should he blockade Fidel Castro's captive nation, knowing that under international law, a blockade is regarded as an act of war?
John F. Kennedy knew his information was correct about the Soviet offensive missiles that Kremlin boss Khrushchev had placed in Cuba . "Clandestinely placed in Cuber," as the Harvard man termed it. Photos from U-2 spy planes left him no doubt.
JFK met that test. He imposed not a blockade, but a quarantine on Cuba . Diplomats are still trying to figure out that one. That quarantine meant that no more Soviet freighters would be permitted to enter Cuban waters without first being inspected by U.S. Navy warships.
Kennedy knew that the presidency was the lonely pinnacle where he and he alone was responsible for making the decisions. In the crunch. "I do not shrink from this responsibility," he told campaign rallies, "I welcome it."
President Obama has faced the crunch several times in several ways. First, of course, he issued an Executive Order to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay . Once again, a president was tested in Cuba.
This time in the crunch, Mr. Obama failed miserably. He signed the order and assured the world that Gitmo would close in one year. That was three years ago.
I do not believe he should ever have signed that order. I think that was wrong policy. But having signed it, he gave the world not a profile in courage, but an example of fecklessness in his inability to make good his order.
Next, however, Mr. Obama faced the crunch in his decision to kill Osama bin Laden. This time, the president succeeded brilliantly. He never flinched. And he was surely right quickly and respectfully to commit the body to the ocean depths. He thereby denied bin Laden's jihadists a shrine around which to gather to commemorate their martyr's death.
More than that, President Obama deliberately denied the Pakistanis advance knowledge of the strike. Another good decision, Mr. President! It would seem the Pakistanis knew where he was all along. That is treachery. Maybe they did not know that America's Number One enemy was there. He was comfortably housed barely a mile outside Pakistan 's equivalent of West Point . If so, what good are they as an ally?
For all of this, Barack Obama deserves highest praise. Less praiseworthy, however, were the after-action comments by Vice President Biden and others. Why did the world need to know which special ops unit had staged the raid on bin Laden's headquarters? Why was the New Yorker magazine able to go into print with a long, detailed description of methods and sources? This was a major misstep.
Today, Mr. Obama faces the crunch with Iran. He will have to determine whether the mullahs have developed a nuclear capability, or are very close to doing so. The Iranians have been the leading sponsors of terrorism since 1979. Will they soon be able to put their nuclear program into bunkers deep beneath mountains and thus secure them from satellite detection and further inspection?
If the president does not act, will he stand aside as Israel acts? Millions of lives could be affected as this still young man weighs evidence and exercises his judgment -- in the crunch.
At such a time, we should recall what then-Sen. Obama said about sitting in the Trinity United Church of Christ for twenty years. He said he was not aware of Rev. Wright's "godda*ning" of this country. He claimed not to have heard the lava-like anti-American rhetoric that erupted from that pulpit.
Perhaps so. But now, when everything depends on this man's judgment, it is not reassuring to know that he could freely associate with such an anti-American group for so long and remain unaware. It was obvious to the rest of us.
I have sat in many a pew in many a church over the past twenty years. I've never heard such anti-American venom preached. Now is when it matters to all of us.
Now, with President Obama poised to receive that 3 a.m. phone call, we are all in the crunch.
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Ken Blackwell is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission.