The Post-American Presidency (Part II)

In what ways may the Carter era foreshadow the first term of an Obama presidency?

February 5, 2008

In what ways may the Carter era foreshadow the first term of an Obama presidency?

If former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had been a solitary calculating machine like Richard Nixon, his moralizing pessimism might not have mattered.

But he was by nature a missionary who felt the need to communicate the uncomfortable new truths of post-Americanism to a nation lost in complacency.

If the policies rooted in post-Americanism had then succeeded, the American people would have gradually seen and imitated his wisdom. But they failed. And their failure seemed to be rooted in the truths that the president preached.

In his first year in office, Carter had said in a commencement address to Notre Dame University that “we are now free of that inordinate fear of Communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in our fear.”

This simple sentence performed three tasks: It exonerated the Soviets (“inordinate fear”), it indicted the United States for backing dictators without due cause and it announced a new hostility towards such now-unrespectable allies.

Carter duly followed his own prescriptions. In order to win Soviet goodwill and tempt the “ape” off the treadmill, he abandoned both the B-1 bomber program and the neutron bomb.

He did so after persuading his close allies, the British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and the West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, to spend scarce political capital supporting him on the highly controversial proposal.

He urged the human rights reforms on the Shah of Iran that helped to bring about his downfall and his replacement by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

However, he raised little effective resistance to the Soviet Union’s airlifting East Germans and Cubans to help a far more murderous pro-Marxist government in its war with Somalia, or to the USSR’s continuing installation of missiles in Eastern Europe aimed at Western capitals.

It sometimes seemed that Carter had replaced Americans’ inordinate fear of communism with the principle that Washington could pursue U.S. values only if they were in conflict with U.S. interests.

Unfortunately for the president, his memorable phrase ensured that people were paying unusual attention to such niceties. And his foreign policy soon became associated with passivity and retreat.

That was seen most dramatically in his handling of the hostage crisis when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was seized and 53 Americans, mainly U.S. diplomats, were seized as hostages by Iranian “students” supported by the new revolutionary Islamic government under Khomeini.

U.S. policy went through three stages. In the first stage, it sought to demonstrate that the United States was no longer the evil hegemon hostile to developing world revolutions. It would not over-react.

Cyrus Vance, the Secretary of State, explained this to the American people in terms that eventually became wearisome: “Most Americans recognize that we cannot alone dictate events.

“This recognition is not a sign of America’s decline. It is a sign of growing American maturity in a complex world.”

When this maturity failed to persuade Tehran to free the hostages, the administration issued vague threats. Given Carter’s general reputation, however, these threats were not believed by Tehran. Khomeini took to openly mocking the president.

But the third stage was the worst of all: Virtually forced to react by popular pressure, Carter attempted a rescue mission in April 1980 that had to be aborted when some of the helicopters were grounded in the desert by sand in the machinery.

It is hard today to grasp just how severe a blow to American prestige the fiasco of Desert One was. Antonio Martino, later Italy’s defense minister in the Iraq war, was at the time a leading economist in Rome and a public figure well-known for his pro-American views.

He recalls getting telephone calls that morning from left-wing friends, genuinely commiserating with him on the humiliating collapse of the United States as a great power.

To friends and enemies alike, Carter’s foreign policy increasingly seemed to be one of active helplessness. Propelled by these crises and by ever-worsening economic statistics, the Carter Administration careened towards defeat in an atmosphere of growing national anxiety.

Reagan replaced him — and, well, the world knows the rest.

Thirty-two years later, a number of things are clearer. First, Carter’s personal post-Americanism — no longer disguised by the necessities of office — is a flaming fact. It is also a political novelty.

Most ex-presidents feel an obligation not to aggravate the problems of their successors, especially in foreign affairs. Carter has intervened in several international crises with the deliberate intention of frustrating U.S. policy.

Many people will forgive criticism of Bush’s Iraq policy even from an ex-president. But Carter also intervened in the Haiti and North Korean crises against a president of his own party — in order to achieve a negotiated solution on terms more favorable to Washington’s opponents.

If these interventions were not expressions of pure vanity, then they suggest a powerful desire to rein in America’s power and subject it to external controls — a crude but not wholly false definition of post-Americanism.

What is also clearer, secondly, is that the 1970s were the worst possible time to embark on a post-American grand strategy. The world was divided by the Cold War. The Soviets were advancing in all sorts of directions.

The global economy was in the grip of hyper-inflation. The developing world was deluded by hopes of massive global wealth transfers under UN auspices.

One effect of these trends was to divide and cripple the global institutions that would be needed to restrain U.S. power under any rational scheme of post-Americanism.

Another effect was to make America and the West skeptical of global bodies that were often dominated by a socialist alliance of the Third World and the USSR.

Almost all of these 1970s barriers to post-Americanism crumbled, however, when communism collapsed and global bodies began to assert themselves in a uni-polar world.

Post-American ideas had been opposed by Europe when the Red Army was threatening it. However, after communism, they became much more attractive as a way of restraining the sole superpower. Today, post-Americanism is almost the public philosophy of the European Union and other rivals to the United States.

More curiously, post-Americanism is growing more popular in America itself. In its first coming under Carter, it was the grand strategy that dare not speak its name.

Its constituency was confined to a few think tanks and Ivy League political science departments. Its national support in those days would probably have just reached double digits in a national opinion poll.

Reagan’s victory in 1980 was an expression of a strong American patriotism that rejected it wholeheartedly.

Today, this mood has changed. In a 2004 interview Senator Barack Obama — now a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination — attacked as “arrogance” the Bush Administration’s refusal to subject U.S. policy to control by a series of new global bodies.

Obama saw the Iraq war as “emblematic of a general arrogance of this administration that was on display before Iraq. It was true with our unilateral rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, we could have done something about greenhouse gases. It was true of our unilateral rejection of the International Criminal Court which, had we been a signatory, could have actually dealt with Saddam Hussein in an appropriate setting.

“It was true with our unilateral rejection of the landmines treaty. This administration has repeatedly shown disregard for other countries and world opinion. That is fundamentally a mistake.”

Those remarks would probably be echoed, doubtless with complex variations, by the other Democratic presidential candidates. Today there is a far larger national constituency than in 1980 that prefers such “global governance” to America’s liberal constitutionalism.

Iraq may partly explain that. As Michael Barone points out, however, even before Iraq between one-quarter and one-third of Americans assented to general statements critical of the United States and of “American exceptionalism.”

So 2008 might see the second coming of Jimmy Carter in foreign policy — and in more propitious circumstances than in 1976.

It is questionable, however, whether any circumstances can be propitious enough for post-Americanism. Its flaws as a strategy are not that it loses elections.

Rather, it suffers as a guiding light because it is readily open to the criticism that post-Americanism hands power over Americans to institutions and people who never hold elections in the first place.

Editor’s Note: Read Part I here.

Takeaways

Today there is a far larger national constituency than in 1980 that prefers such "global governance" to America's liberal constitutionalism.

Carter was by nature a missionary who felt the need to communicate the uncomfortable new truths of post-Americanism to a nation lost in complacency.

Today, post-Americanism is almost the public philosophy of the European Union and other rivals to the United States.

The 1970s were the worst possible time to embark on a post-American grand strategy.

All 1970s barriers to post-Americanism crumbled when communism collapsed and global bodies began to assert themselves in a uni-polar world.