In 1962, presented with U2 spy plane photos of Soviet missile sites in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy ordered his Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, to directly confront the Soviets. At a tense emergency meeting of the Security Council, Stevenson exposed the Soviets denials as lies by showing the world the U2 photos.
In 2009, presented with evidence that Iran had concealed a nuclear weapons uranium processing plant, President Obama said nothing, giving Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a week at the U.N. to threaten Israel, deny the Holocaust and preen on the world stage with his fellow dictators.
History books look back in admiration at how President Kennedy faced down the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis and brought the planet safely back from the brink of nuclear war.
It's worth pondering how the history books will treat Obama's handling of a similarly apocalyptic Iranian nuclear threat.
There's little doubt that Obama knew about Iran's secret uranium enrichment plant long before the opening of the U.N. Security Council session last week.
Armed with the knowledge that Iran is aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons and expecting Ahmadinejad and other world leaders in New York, what does the president do?
Does he use his first speech at the United Nations to speak out directly about the ongoing Iranian deception?
Does he, like Kennedy before him, share the photos of the nuclear processing facility?
Does he challenge the world to confront the fact that a Holocaust-denying nation, which has openly sworn to wage a war of total destruction, has lied to the world yet again, secretly developed a second processing facility and is taking us to the edge of nuclear war?
No, no and no.
Obama didn't do any of those things. Instead, he flinched. He exited the world stage in New York and went off to the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh to announce the Iranian nuclear discovery.
And then, as if to underscore his timidity, the president traveled to Copenhagen to lobby on behalf of Mayor Daley to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago.
In the meantime, Iran was busy test firing the missiles that will carry the nuclear warheads it is developing.
We now know that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and especially French President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to confront the Iranians at the United Nations last week with the knowledge of their second processing plant. Not only did President Obama not agree to that strategy, he went on to chair a phony (even for the U.N) Security Council session on nuclear disarmament of all things.
Apparently, a messy confrontation with Ahmadinejad over real nuclear disarmament would have upset the theatre of the president's posturing with world leaders over theoretical nuclear disarmament.
Obama's timid journey from New York to Pittsburgh to Copenhagen trivializes the American presidency. And much more seriously, it brings the world one step closer to the kind of global conflagration Kennedy so skillfully avoided 47 years ago.
The threat posed by nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran's Ahmadinejad is arguably graver than the threat posed by nuclear weapons in the hands of Cuba's Castro.
The Iranian leaders are driven by a theological messianism that is more dangerous and less predictable than Castro's charismatic communism. They have pledged to destroy Israel and retake Jerusalem. This is a pledge the United States must take very seriously. For if it happens, it will trigger a global war.
Obama came face-to-face with one of the world's most dangerous regimes last week. He had a chance to stand up to it. He had a chance to stop the march toward a nuclear Middle East.
It's hard to see how history fails to record that he blinked.
Newt Gingrich is a senior fellow at AEI.