The Wimp Factor: Why Obama Risks Winding Up Like Jimmy Carter

The legacy of the 44th president of the United States is in peril, as he is seen as weak-willed with an unfocused foreign policy. Is it 1979 all over again?

Not that different
Not that different
Jacques Schuster

BERLIN — Given the trajectory of President Barack Obama’s second term, right now would be a good time to recall the lessons of President Jimmy Carter's administration. Americans voted for the Georgia governor in 1976 because he promised morality and veracity. After the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair they longed for virtue and honesty, and the outsider embodied these values. Carter promised never to lie to the people. And — to put some distance between himself and the Washington elite — he never tired of portraying his Republican predecessors as politicians who had failed morally.

Where foreign policy was concerned, Carter cast himself in the moralistic tradition of Woodrow Wilson. He didn’t simply perceive the world as too multifaceted for a single foreign policy doctrine — he found doctrines per se immoral. And so until the crises in Iran and Afghanistan in 1979, he pretty much relied on his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Like Carter, Vance had come to Washington to deal with the politicians of this world as one would deal with reasonable people who shared similar views. He didn’t know how to talk to villains.

Carter and Vance strived to find a moral balance between the country’s dwindling means and its international responsibility. The attempt was honest, but it failed.

Under Carter, America became a superpower almost against its will. In the constant struggle to couple power with morality, in which the interests of the U.S. and Western values would be preserved, Carter experienced one defeat after another. His tenure is still regarded as a troubled period in American history, linked to the hostage crisis in Tehran, the march of the Soviets into Afghanistan and, of course, the public perception of Carter as hesitant and weak.

Under Carter, the U.S. was pulled into the world’s conflicts without the authority to act freely. The country was like one “damned to world power,” as German political scientist and historian Christian Hacke puts it — a wobbly giant lacking self-confidence and suffering one humiliation after another. Washington, which until then had been the impresario of world politics, had abdicated its role as the leading power of the Western world. Or at least that’s how it looked at the time.

Historical déjà vu

And now? The parallels between Presidents Carter and Obama are striking. With noble goals and high standards, Obama set out to free America from the blot of George W. Bush’s power politics. Like Carter before him, Obama is trying to find a new balance between the country’s dwindling means — due in part to the present economic crisis — and continually growing international responsibility in a multi-polar world. Just as it did with Carter, this is happening together with a hefty dose of isolationism.

Trying to please a war-weary nation, Obama has been pulling back from the world’s crisis regions without acknowledging that in politics, like nature, there’s no such thing as a vacuum. Like the country’s 39th president, the 44th president doesn’t have a well-reasoned foreign policy strategy, beyond the desire to give the country a rest from its international position as hall monitor. The consequences are the same as they were for Carter: America is humiliated, entangled in contradictions, continuing to weaken its position and neutralize itself as a leading power.

We experienced this in the case of Syria. Obama avoided involvement when the civil war began, then last year he said that President Assad had to go. But there were to be no weapons deliveries to the rebels. He later revised that and announced some military help that never arrived. At the same time, he pulled most of the U.S. Sixth Fleet back from the Mediterranean.

He didn’t even call them back when Russia increased the number of its warships in the region. Equally wimpy was the way Obama allowed the Russians to deliver rockets to Damascus, Syria — with the full knowledge that the S-300 missiles would make the imposition of a no-fly zone riskier and costlier. Thanks to Obama’s zigzagging and reluctance to stand ground, Russia is once again an influential player in the Mediterranean.

Putin gives Obama the finger

Putin clearly regards Obama as weak for backtracking on plans to station an anti-ballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic, which the Russian president perceives as a personal victory. For this reason, too, Putin dared give Edward Snowden asylum, and Obama had no other choice but to declare himself “extremely disappointed” and cancel his Moscow trip. It was a gesture of Carteresque helplessness after a humiliation of Carteresque proportions. It will be seen that way in Tehran as well as Moscow, which doesn’t bode well for the coming conflict on Iranian nuclear policy.

Obama is betting on soft power, without having thought through what it really means. He mistakes a desire for calm for the guarantee of it.

In May, he said the victory over al-Qaeda was near, only then to have to admit that the terror network was still capable of carrying out deadly attacks. No, it wasn’t back, he said — it had been there all along.

And his administration feels the continual need to announce that drone attacks will be discontinued. They should instead be increased.

Criticism of Barack Obama’s Jimmy-Carter-style foreign policy is increasing — and rightly. Carter the dove also followed a hawk, Ronald Reagan.

On the other hand, Carter is considered the best former president the United States has ever had. So Barack Obama can always hope.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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