Obama’s deer-in-the-headlights, finger-to-the-wind, “I can’t believe this is happening to me” initial reaction to the Mubarak implosion has eerie precedents.
After the debacle in Vietnam, Watergate, the Nixon resignation, and the Ford WIN buttons, voters were willing to bet on the smiling but unknown hope-and-change reformer from Plains, Georgia. Jimmy Carter’s campaign and his early presidential speeches on resetting foreign policy sounded uplifting. They were certainly a rebuke to the supposedly dark Nixon-Kissinger realpolitik and cloak-and-dagger intrigue. Indeed, Carter’s election marked a return to Wilsonian idealism that predicated American support for other nations on shared commitment to human rights and U.N. values. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance exuded probity and almost seemed to suggest at every stop, “I am not Henry Kissinger.”
Carter’s new America was to entertain no more mindless, reductionist inordinate fear of Communism. Nor would we continue to be a cynical arms merchant to our allies and profit from the tools of death. Anti-Communist, anti-fundamentalist strongman modernizers like the Shah were suddenly antithetical to American values. In contrast, his radical Islamist enemies were little more than curious and confused intermediaries whose appreciated opposition to dictators would soon be eclipsed by serious European-like socialist reformers.
While Carter’s America occasionally worried about the Communist consolidation in Vietnam or Central America, these rather violent sorts certainly had legitimate grievances given our prior support for anti-Communist authoritarians. In fact, the new United States worried far more about our own epauletted SOBs in Africa and Latin America than about the less-well-groomed AK-47-toting liberationists.
Then 1979 came around, and the unfortunate wages of a well-meaning Carterism became all too apparent after only the first two years of its implementation. The world of our Cold War allies proved not to be one of Manichean evil and good, but was revealed as complex and consisting of shades of both.
It was perhaps good to press our friends in Argentina, Central America, South Korea, and Iran to reform, but to what degree, to be consistent, were we then to pressure the Soviet Union, the autocratic Arab oil-producing world, or Communist China — all of which had far more blood on their hands than did the Shah or the South Korean anti-Communists — to likewise move toward elections and free speech?
Worse still, the more Carter spoke about human rights, the more he seemed, in hypocritical fashion, to court the Soviet Union for an arms-control agreement, the Arab world for a peace settlement and steady oil sales, and China for economic liberalization through formal diplomatic recognition. It almost seemed to the cynical diplomatic world that if a nation were hostile to the United States, powerful or strategically important — and even with a horrific record on human rights — the Carter administration would romance it as zealously as it would snub friendly countries that were less powerful and had authoritarian, rather than genocidal, tendencies. The past killing of a few thousand in allied countries warranted far more anguish than the killing of several million in enemy ones.
In short, hypocrisy and sanctimonious bullying soon replaced the promised unbending principle and moral courage. Carter seemed to be harder on our friends than on our rivals and enemies, especially odd since an aggressive war was more likely to come from North Korea than from South Korea, from the radical Arab world than from Iran or Israel, from the Soviet Union’s proxies than from our own, and from China rather than from Taiwan.