By the beginning of 1980, Jimmy Carter was in big trouble. Almost everything he had said or done in foreign policy over the prior three years had failed — and he was running for reelection.
Carter had come into office in 1977 promising a new American stance abroad predicated on human rights. He bragged of an end to our supposedly inordinate fear of Soviet-inspired Communism. He entertained the hope of not losing a single American soldier in combat during his tenure. And he rejected the realpolitik of the Nixon-Kissinger years.
The State Department would end the excessive influence of the bellicose National Security Council. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance would put a kinder, gentler face on American diplomacy. We championed Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe over more moderate black reformers. We broke with the Shah of Iran, who fled his country in January 1979. We for a while praised the Ayatollah Khomeini and sought ways to reach out to him. Carter’s U.N. ambassador, Andrew Young, called Khomeini “some kind of saint.” Young met secretly with PLO representatives in Kuwait. In an interview, he falsely alleged of his own country that “We still have hundreds of people that I would categorize as political prisoners
in our prisons.”
The same formula was used in Nicaragua, as we welcomed the end of the despised Somoza regime and looked to Marxist rebels to provide long-delayed social justice for the region. Carter spurned South Korea, as if North Korean threats were not all that serious, or perhaps were even understandable, given U.S. Cold War machinations. Carter wanted to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea as a way of easing tensions on the 38th Parallel. He was clearly uncomfortable with Israel. He often distanced himself from Europe.
For a while, there was calm. Stunned potential aggressors only eyed one another to see who might be the first to test this strange new break with nearly four decades of bipartisan American foreign policy. But then, in late 1979, things started going downhill fast — as if the gamblers thought it was time to cash in their chips for fear that Carter might not win another four years in office.
Soviet-inspired Communists were on the rise in Angola, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. Islamists stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took American hostages. Vietnam fought a tough border war with China. Much of Central America was in turmoil. Gas prices soared as the U.S. tried to enforce an embargo on Iranian oil. The Russians invaded Afghanistan. The general impression of American impotence was best summed up by the radical Iranian line, “America can’t do a thing.”
Carter was dazed. He had come as a Light into the world to save it, and now the world had rejected him. Why was his magnanimity sneered at as weakness rather than appreciated and reciprocated with good will? Did these ungrateful countries not realize that they were only making American realpolitikers and reactionaries look good — and thus undermining a rare American internationalist who was more a citizen of the world?
Soon, a few of those around Carter became quite concerned that the old world order, at least as they had known it since the end of World War II, was unraveling. This was not good for Democratic chances in the upcoming 1980 elections.
Then all of a sudden Carter flipped. By January 1980 there was a new Carter Doctrine, warning the Soviet Union that the Persian Gulf would be protected by force if necessary. Saudi Arabia may have been a misogynist, fundamentalist, and autocratic monarchy, but human-rights advocate Jimmy Carter declared it was central to Western interests and vowed to protect the Saudi royals.
In an effort to embarrass Moscow, the host of the 1980 Summer Olympics, for the first and only time in history America boycotted the games. Carter stopped the Nixon détente practice of exporting U.S. grain to the Soviet Union. He began arming the rebels in Afghanistan. He hiked defense spending up well over 4 percent of GDP — and well over the levels that had been promised by the hawkish rival presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1976. Cyrus Vance and Andrew Young both had left the administration by then. Carter stopped sending appeasing envoys to Iran. He suggested that he would not rule out another effort to rescue the hostages, even though his first attempt had failed miserably.
The rest is history. Carter’s efforts were all too little, too late. Ronald Reagan came to power. He ended Carterism, and won the Cold War by projecting U.S. strength and confidence to a tottering Soviet Union.
Will Obama follow the Carter script? His foreign policy, like Carter’s in late 1979, is wrecked. Vladimir Putin saw Obama’s trashing of George W. Bush and loud boasts about “reset” as weakness to be exploited, not as outreach to be matched. Any former Soviet republic that has a large minority of Russian speakers feels that it is next in line for Putin’s bullying — and does not believe Barack Obama’s now-empty “step-over lines,” “red lines,” or “deadlines.”
Obama’s outreach to Latin American Marxists was a colossal failure. Venezuela is now a failed state — with one of the world’s largest reserves of oil. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega humiliated Obama with a long public dressing down. Cuba, Ecuador, and Argentina are more anti-American than ever.