eyes on the U.S.

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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