When the wages of such idealism and magnanimity came due during the annus terribilis of 1979 — with the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, the Soviet entry into Afghanistan, revolution and war in Central America, the rise of radical Islam, the flight of the Shah, and the taking of hostages in Teheran — the American response often seemed herky-jerky, ad hoc, and, once again, hypocritical. Carter’s “open-mouthed shock” at the Soviet invasion was later amplified by Vice President Mondale’s infamous “why?” summation, “I cannot understand — it just baffles me — why the Soviets these last few years have behaved as they have. Maybe we have made some mistakes with them. Why did they have to build up all these arms? Why did they have to go into Afghanistan? Why can’t they relax just a little bit about Eastern Europe? Why do they try every door to see if it is locked?”
As the world began to heat up in the expectation that the new America either would not or could not play its old Cold War role, a contrite Carter now suddenly played catch-up by approving massive sales of jet aircraft to the dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He set in place what was to become the largest covert CIA operation in our history by supplying sophisticated weapons to radical Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan. He became the first American president to organize a boycott of a scheduled Olympics. By 1980 there was a “Carter Doctrine” that essentially declared, in neo-colonialist Monroe Doctrine fashion, that the oil-rich Persian Gulf was an American protectorate and that the United States would use military force to keep out foreign powers. Likewise Carter authorized a sudden build-up in U.S. defense capability; in his last budget, he sent defense expenditures spiraling above 5 percent of GDP.
The impression, fairly or not, was that the conversion of late 1979 and 1980 was a reaction to the misplaced policies of 1977–1978 — not so much a reaction to the domestic opposition of Republicans, but more a concession that the world simply did not operate in the manner Carter had hoped. The further impression was that if Carter had not so loudly denounced his predecessors and so rashly pronounced his own new wiser policies, then he might not have had to reject his own prior doctrines so utterly and embarrassingly, and seek so clumsily to restore U.S. deterrence.
Does any of that seem familiar today?
We have already seen a complete repudiation of the 2006–2008 harsh rhetoric attacking tribunals, preventive detention, Guantanamo, renditions, the Patriot Act, the Iraq War, and Predator drones. The Bush protocols have been not only maintained but expanded, as under Obama we killed with drones five times as many people in Waziristan in two years as we did in five under Bush. There will be no trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed near Ground Zero. Now we are evolving in Carter-like fashion to a reset of the reset-button policies of 2009–2010. That means we will probably hear no more grand talk about outreach to the Iranian theocracy. The next time authoritarians shoot and suppress dissidents in the streets of Teheran, President Obama will probably not vote present on their fate. I suspect bowing to foreign monarchs and apologizing while in Turkey for horrific American sins is over as well.
Nor are we likely to hear any more mythohistory like the Cairo speech, in which Islam was praised for contributions that it simply did not make. Formerly snubbed allies — Britain, Germany, Israel, India, Colombia — will probably not be similarly snubbed in the future. I don’t think there will be any more grand concessions to Russia in the hopes that Putin will reciprocate by pressuring Iran or reaching out to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics. Likewise, Obama is keeping mum about the tottering Mubarak regime and hopes that the Muslim Brotherhood does not quote back to him his Cairo speech or Al-Arabiya interview. For now we dread the emergence of ElBaradei in the role of Banisadr, assuring us that there is no threat from a new Egyptian Khomeini, and post facto blaming us for our past support of a stable strongman. What is missing from this self-described humane administration — in its clumsy and public calibration of the varying cliques vying for power in Cairo — was an early and consistent explanation of why the United States supports those who embrace constitutional government.