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Today, as in 1979, the Middle East is in turmoil. Carter was not to blame for the Iranian mob’s assault on the U.S. embassy, and Obama is not to blame for the cascading chaos across the northern tier of Africa. But they are to blame for how their administrations reacted to these events.
For months, Carter did nothing of substance in response to the embassy takeover, and when he tried to do something it proved worse than nothing.
Similarly, in response to Iran’s failed Twitter Revolution of 2009, Obama sat silent. No one was calling on him to send in the 82nd Airborne to support the Iranian protestors. But freedom-loving people—and their enemies—look to America for signals. And Obama’s signals were loud and clear in the summer of 2009.
His administration made the same mistake but in a different way in Egypt, as his secretary of state and vice president initially mouthed support for Egypt’s autocrat. In Libya, the administration has regressed, failing in the first two weeks of Libya’s revolution to do or say anything of substance in response to Khadafy’s brutality. As Elliot Abrams observes, “When…the Arab League is ahead of you in denouncing human rights violations, you are reacting a bit slowly.”
But the Arab League, the EU and the UN secretary general are going to be ahead of Obama because he is more interested in the international community “speaking with one voice” and “bearing witness” than in America leading. In this regard, it pays to recall what historian William Pfaff observed in The Wrath of Nations: When nations don’t want to act, let alone lead, international organizations actually become “an obstacle to action, by inhibiting individual national action and rationalizing the refusal to act nationally.”
Blessedly, there has been no Desert One debacle under Obama, though one gets the sense that something like that is looming, perhaps in Libya or Yemen, perhaps in Saudi Arabia or Oman.
What we do know is that there already have been diplomatic debacles: Obama has “reset,” apologized, and gripped and grinned to accommodate America’s foes, averting his gaze from government thuggery in Russia in order to get an arms control treaty of questionable merit, ditching the Dalai Lama in order to save a photo-op summit in Beijing, literally bowing to the emperor of Japan, monarch of Saudi Arabia and dictator of China.
Similar things happened under Carter. A 1979 Washington Post article captures the strange and sad symbolism of Washington’s interactions with Moscow in those gray days of self-doubt and malaise. “Carter,” the Post reported, “seems to have developed a protectiveness, almost a fondness, for the older man, especially after he saved Brezhnev from falling on Sunday morning…Brezhnev seemed to welcome Carter’s assistance, as though he had come to depend on it.”
That was a bruising visual metaphor for Carter, and there are traces of this in Obama’s interactions with the world. Just consider how the Russias, Chinas, Irans and Venezuelas view the United States today.
Alan Dowd (twitter.com/alanwdowd) writes on defense and security issues.
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