A New Obama Doctrine?
With his presidency in a tailspin, Carter radically changed course. Will Obama do the same?


Victor Davis Hanson

Secretary of State John Kerry believes the chief challenge to the world is global warming, although the planet’s temperature has remained unchanged for nearly two decades, even as carbon emissions have soared. The Great Lakes are frozen over as the president claims global warming is “settled science.”

The Middle East is a mess. The United States’ heroic effort to stabilize Iraq was thrown away when Obama yanked out all U.S. troops after the success of the surge. Afghanistan, where more U.S. soldiers have died in Obama’s five years than in Bush’s seven, is on the path of Vietnam in early 1975.

Iran will get the bomb. All the efforts to achieve an effective boycott have been abandoned willy-nilly without any Iranian concessions.

Red lines in Syria only empowered Assad and Putin. The corpses pile up, and the idea of the Russians and Syrians accounting for WMD is a cruel joke.

Libya is Somalia on the Mediterranean, a failed state that looks across to Europe. So does Egypt, where we at one time or another have backed and then withdrawn support from three successive regimes — and tuned out the once lavishly praised Arab Spring.

Relations with Israel are at an all-time low. Our special relationship with Turkey only green-lighted Recep Erdogan’s efforts to undermine democracy and Islamicize his country.

Our efforts to reduce our strategic arsenal in association with Vladimir Putin, together with our new Hamlet-like stance towards China, have terrified our Pacific allies. In the next three years, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan (and perhaps the Philippines and Australia as well) will either make concessions to China or threaten to go nuclear — if their suspicions continue to grow that they are no longer under the U.S. strategic umbrella.

So: Will Obama’s advisers Carterize the president — that is, persuade him to step back, as Carter did in 1980? Probably not — and for a variety of both practical and ideological reasons.

1. Carter wanted to get reelected and defuse Reagan’s stinging charges of appeasement. Obama has been reelected and is not running for anything. To the small degree that U.S. foreign policy is an issue in the upcoming 2014 midterm elections, the lame duck Obama himself doesn’t much care about the consequences of reduced U.S. stature on his party’s chances — or perhaps, for that matter, even care that much about his party’s chances.

2. Carter acknowledged that he had failed. He grudgingly accepted the fact that deterrence is acquired over time and with difficulty, while lost quickly and easily.

In contrast, Obama still feels that his foreign policy is a smashing success. The United States’ prior inordinate and undeserved stature abroad has been reset. Putin is of no concern, given Obama’s belief that gamesmanship, “macho schtick,” and diplomatic chess-playing are proof of unsophistication and rather silly. As far as the former Soviet republics go, arbitrary borders are always fluid anyway. Let them ebb and flow, as we deal with climate change.

3. Carter was iconic of nothing by 1980. He was an ineffective speaker and without a base of support. The press had tired of his uncharismatic whining and sermonizing. In short, Carter feared that the press thought he was weakening America.

Not Obama, our landmark first African-American president. The media are deeply invested in his success. His teleprompted eloquence still makes good sound bites. If Carter de facto blamed himself for the need to readjust radically and correct his prior mistakes, Obama believes that if there have been errors, they are those of the Republican House or manufactured by knee-jerk Fox News and talk-radio extremists. In 1979, most Americans conceded the mess that Carter’s sanctimoniousness had caused; 35 years later, most also see the wages of Obama’s failure, but only quietly so.

4. Finally, the country is somewhat different. True, Carter inhaled the fumes of Vietnam. But our current isolationism is more than just exhaustion over Iraq and Afghanistan. Foreign policy is now seen as antithetical to domestic spending, as military readiness comes only at the expense of public entitlements. With record percentages of Americans on state and federal help, Obama masterfully has framed old U.S. responsibilities as the crazy things that George W. Bush and his ilk incurred, which will only disrupt his more important effort to “fundamentally transform America.” Cyrus Vance gave way to more realistic advisers; the liberal Hillary Clinton is now considered pragmatic in comparison to what has followed.

There will be no Obama Doctrine. More likely we will see a doubling down on reducing U.S. influence — with the end of reshaping a too-prominent global profile, which itself was supposedly a result of unfairly acquired advantage.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.