Comparisons of Presidents Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter are not meant as a compliment to either man. But it is inevitable to compare them, especially when examining their foreign policies. These two presidents share a perspective on America’s role in the world that is at odds with the idea of strong, confident American leadership. Both reduced American power in the world, contrary to America’s national interests and moral principles.
In the 1970s, Carter believed that America’s options in foreign policy were limited by what he saw as the inexorable forces of modernization shaping events in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Given our “detente” with the Soviet Union, he felt it was time to move the U.S. away from worries about Soviet expansionism and toward a new role: Acting as “midwife” at the birth of new, modernizing democracies led by “populist,” progressive movements.
In practice, he undermined traditional autocracies that had been stable governments, friendly to the U.S., and allowed their countries to fall to armed insurgents, mostly financed and trained by Moscow. Because of his flawed ideology, he misread the intentions, values, and worldviews of other international political actors, as Jeane Kirkpatrick noted at the time. His policies created more dangerous problems for this country. Carter opened the door to communist expansion into Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Southeast Asia and to the fall of the Shah of Iran to Khomeini’s theocrats.
Obama’s ideology is likewise flawed. He is convinced that America’s foreign policy options should be limited, in humble penance for past crimes, real or imagined, that America committed (particularly those he can blame on President George W. Bush). Obama rejects the idea of American exceptionalism. He wants to pull the U.S. out of military entanglements and shrink the size of our military, preferring the process of negotiations and “diplomatic solutions” to the use of American power.
His policies have led to a string of bad outcomes in the Middle East. We have abandoned the Iraqis and the Afghanis to the anti-Western sectarian forces with the biggest guns. Obama’s inexplicable preference for the Muslim Brotherhood over both Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian military leadership has helped fuel great instability in Egypt, including pogroms against Christians. His handling of the Syrian civil war did nothing to help the 100,000 civilians killed there and the millions of refugees. Instead, he strengthened Assad by turning him into a nonproliferation partner and gave the Russians the kind of foothold in the region they haven’t had since they left Egypt in 1973. And most frightening of all, Obama’s insistence on pressing Congress not to enact tougher sanctions on Iran, coupled with his starry-eyed view of the new president, Hassan Rouhani, has allowed that country to move its uranium and plutonium processing to a point where they may be weeks, rather than months or years, from developing nuclear weapons. Our long-time allies in the region, the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, are rightfully deeply concerned about U.S. policy and what it means for them.
Obama has withdrawn the U.S. from pursuing its own national security interests and from standing with its allies. He has left the field to the wolves — Russia, Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Qaida.
In World War II, the United States took up the mantle of world leadership. It has made us the main target of anti-Western, anti-democratic forces (the “Great Satan”) and the envy of our allies. We accept these facts because we are the only country with both the physical ability and the philosophy to lead on a global scale. Our strength — military, diplomatic and economic — has helped liberate whole countries, contributed to a strong global economy and improved the daily lives of millions of people around the world. We have not acted solely for our own gain, but out of moral principles grounded in the truths that all men are created equal and are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” We are, in fact, an exceptional country.
At an international “town hall” forum sponsored by MTV in February 2002, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was challenged with this question: “[H]ow do you feel about representing a country commonly perceived as the Satan of contemporary politics?”
“We have sent men and women from the armed forces of the United States to other parts of the world throughout the past century to put down oppression. We defeated fascism. We defeated communism. We saved Europe in World War I and World War II. We were willing to do it, glad to do it. We went to Korea. We went to Vietnam. All in the interest of preserving the rights of people.
“And when all those conflicts were over, what did we do? Did we stay and conquer? Did we say, ‘Okay, we defeated Germany. Now Germany belongs to us? We defeated Japan, so Japan belongs to us?’ No. What did we do? We built them up. We gave them democratic systems which they have embraced totally to their soul. And did we ask for any land? No, the only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead. And that is the kind of nation we are.”
That statement reflects a self-understanding of America that has shaped our foreign policy for most of the last century, through both Republican and Democrat administrations. The exceptions have been the Carter years and the Obama years.
The criticism of Obama’s foreign policies, like that of Carter’s before him, is not about the bumbling mistakes of someone new to the international stage. It comes from an understanding that the core ideology on which those policies are based is deeply flawed. By making the U.S. smaller in the world, we do not endear ourselves to old opponents or old friends. We empower our enemies and weaken our friends. Ultimately we endanger ourselves physically and leave others unprotected. That is not the American way.
Matthew Brooks is the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Learn more at www.RJCHQ.org.