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.
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.
Yes, our third year of Obama hope and change is beginning a lot like 1979 (I’ll skip the domestic parallels), as an unjust and imperfect world rejects the utopian visions of another liberal idealist, and sees magnanimity as weakness to be exploited rather than as kindness to be reciprocated.
The ongoing Iranian nuclear program, the impending fall of Mubarak, the sudden rashness of North Korea, the regional muscle-flexing of Russia and China, the worries of Japan and Western Europe, the emerging new Marxist, anti-American, and anti-democratic axis in Latin America, the implosion of Mexico — again, fairly or not, these will be interpreted as the wages of haughty American pontificating, coupled with impressions of stasis and indecision. That once again oil and food prices are skyrocketing, as the dollar weakens, deficits soar, and unemployment stays high, as in 1979, does not help to convey an image of American stability and power.
There is one consolation in that the progressive Western Europeans, the United Nations, and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee sometimes appreciate American indecision and self-confession. As a result, this time around our sermonizer-in-chief was given the Nobel Peace Prize without lobbying for it — and during, rather than after, his presidency.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.