There He Goes Again? Thoughts on the Jimmy Carter Myth and Barack Obama, Part II

This past spring at Rhodes House, I had the opportunity to attend a question-and-answer session with Rhodes alumnus and Louisiana Senator David Vitter. While I disagree with almost all of Vitter’s political positions (he is a typical conservative Republican) when it was my turn to ask a question, I appreciated his candor. Republicans, I noted, were awfully harsh on the Obama Administration, comparing him to Jimmy Carter, decrying him as ‘weak’, and complaining that Obama was bowing to foreign monarchs. The title of then-Presidential wannabe Mit Romney’s campaign book seemed to say it all: No Apology is what Republicans would offer Americans.

But, I noted, it seemed to me that when it came to really substantial issues of US foreign policy, the GOP seemed to offer no real alternatives to what the Obama Administration had done. Run down a list of major items, and while intellectuals on the Left like Glenn Greenwald, Chris Hedges, and Amy Goodman could provide plenty of reasons why the Libyan adventure, the ‘pivot’ to Asia, or the Obama Administration’s drone wars were immoral or imprudent, there was a notable silence from any of the GOP-affiliated institutions one might expect to hear ideas from. What was the deal? Still, if I was expecting to see Vitter stumble into an awkward attack on Obama, I was disappointed: he agreed with me, conceding that he felt that his Party did not, in fact, have much to offer in terms of a principled critique of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy.

Note to the GOP: Clint Eastwood-style critiques of Democratic foreign policy don’t work

It all seemed to confirm to me the second part of what I found to be an interesting, if also telling part of the results of this 2012 Presidential election – the way in which the GOP’s obsession with the ‘Obama equals Jimmy Carter’ mythos may have blinded the Party to coming to a more objective assessment of, domestically, the kinds of voters and electoral votes it had to get in order to win the election and, in terms of foreign policy, the case it could make that the Romney campaign was offering a bold new vision for American leadership abroad. In a prior post, I addressed the first half of this equation, discussing how the obsession that Obama was Carter 2.0 may have lured Republican-affiliated intellectuals into a false sense of confidence in their inevitable electoral victory, even though the kinds of voters and the geography of votes that Obama was relying on was in some ways the inverse of what Carter secured in 1980.

In this post, meanwhile, I’m interested in thinking about the extent to which bad history on the part of the GOP – in particular the Party’s idolization of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy – might have limited the intellectual space on the Right for policy intellectuals or politicians themselves to offer a bracing critique of the President. Right-wing friends and readers looking for the standard dressing-down of Reagan should, however, look elsewhere: even though, as a non-specialist in modern U.S. history, I’m relying largely on a semi-long-ago reading of Sean Wilentz’ The Age of Reagan, the main theme here is less any of Reagan’s misdeeds than what I view as a contemporary Republican misreading of the Reagan Administration’s grand strategy.)

Read this book!

More than just an exercise in punditry, however, the bigger question which interests me here is how – whether as interested Americans, non-Americans, or historians – we can begin to evaluate the international history of the late 1970s and 1980s. That applies both for domestic American political history, as a new cadre of graduate student Americanist friends are doing, but more relevant for your humble narrator’s interests, it also applies to thinking about the histories of American and Soviet foreign policy during what was at the time one of the most high-tension periods of the Cold War. It’s partly by analyzing which parts of the 2008-2012 GOP myths about Carter were junk – and which, if any, had taints of insight about them – that we can maybe begin to reach a more coherent professional, and eventually public, consensus about what was really important about that period in history.

What then, were the basic elements of the Obama as Carter myth in the realm of foreign policy? Read the book blurb for No Apology and the basic outlines of the critique of Obama are clear:

In No Apology, Mitt Romney asserts that American strength is essential—not just for our own well-being, but for the world’s.  Governments such as China and a newly-robust Russia threaten to overtake us on many fronts, and radical Islam continues its dangerous rise.

Think back to other more specific instances during the campaign, and the picture begins to fill itself in. Carter was weak because he gave away the Panama Canal to a Latin American country; Obama was weak because he bowed down to non-democratic monarchs. Carter’s watch as President coincided with a period in which the Soviet Union and its allies appeared to be making successful interventions around the Third World – the Horn of Africa, Southern Africa, Afghanistan – while the United States seemed to stand by doing nothing. Just as Carter did nothing, so they asserted, to prop up America’s allies in the Middle East – the Shah of Iran fell in the winter of 1978-1979 and was reduced to being an itinerant and cancer-ridden former dictator – so, too, did they saw that Obama was ‘betraying’ Israel and letting down long-time allies such as … err, Hosni Mubarak. And as Romney attempted to do in the foreign policy debate, Obama was letting America’s military strength relative to other Great Powers slip. If in 1980 the issue was Team B’s claim that Carter’s inattentiveness was leading to Soviet dominance in nuclear weapons to the point where the United States would eventually become resigned to a fetal position, in 2012 the Romney team attempted to argue that Obama was letting naval power slip relative to countries like China. It may not have been entirely pretty as a critique, but you get a basic sense of the outline.

Soon to be found in your local TJ Maxx’s book section

So, what did the Republicans offer in response to this? As Vitter’s comments at the Rhodes House event betrayed, not so much. Romney’s foreign policy team was dominated, as many liberal commentators have notices, mostly by washed-up neocons. As writers like Marc Tracy noted at the time, even if liberal Democrats had despised Bush Administration standbys like Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Condi, there was no doubt that these were substantial – if ideological – individuals to be taken serious. Compared to these former lineups of university provosts and former Secretaries of Defense, Romney’s top foreign policy advisors, like Dan Senor – known best as the spin man for Jerry Bremer in occupied Iraq before writing a book on venture capital in Israel – seemed about as substantial as the now-extinct Twinkie. Nor was this just liberal élitist snootery towards the insufficiently credentialed hoi polloi. The problem was more on the level of ideas. Wrote Tracy:

For instance, when the Arab Spring began to take a sour turn in newspaper headlines, Senor was quick to proclaim that the Bush-era “Freedom Agenda” just wouldn’t cut it any more—this despite the fact that, in the mid-2000s, Senor’s job involved selling said Agenda. (The Daily Show memorably lampooned the flip-flop.) Senor’s quotes on behalf of Romney are similarly malleable. Rather than offering specifics, he makes broad, blurry charges about the president’s “leading from behind” and “unraveling” strategy. When in a recent interview Andrea Mitchell asked, “What would Governor Romney do differently than President Obama is planning to do?” Senor fell back on an ideological critique that managed to be at once grand and meaningless. “You have to take a step back and say, has this administration been an observer of events rather than a shaper of them?” Um, is that a multiple-choice question?

As many commentators observed, this became a real stumbling block for the Romney campaign by October. If, over the summer, the attempt to tar Obama as Carter redux was on, by the mid-October foreign policy debate, Romney was seen as trying to say that his positions were more or less identical to Obama’s. What had happened?

One theory, the one that Vitter’s comments would seem to belie, is that Obama was basically pursuing the right strategy. But could that really be right? There has been no shortage of criticism from the Right that Obama lacks a grand strategy, made perhaps most forcefully by Harvard historian and Henry Kissinger biographer Niall Ferguson. And indeed, something has changed from the days when professors from Harvard (Kissinger) or Columbia (Zbigniew Brzezinski) ran much of the foreign policy of the White House. Those scholars-cum-advisors might viewed the world through big ideas, as Ferguson suggests of Kissinger in a 2011 LSE lecture. For Kissinger, one of the key concepts was ‘linkage’; Chile, ‘a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica’, might not have mattered much in geopolitical terms per se, but the American commitment to stymie the Left from Latin America to Southern Africa to Afghanistan was crucial to maintain ‘credibility’ both against the Soviets as well as in a newfound partnership with Beijing.

Brzezinski thought in terms different from these, of course. But whether the area was the Horn of Africa, Iran, or Afghanistan, Brzezinski consistently pushed for the United States to push back against state disintegration and a revolutionary Left across the zone he called the ‘Arc of Crisis.’ In the 1970s as in the 1870s, an Anglophone island power faced the threat of became isolated if it did not engage wisely in the lands from the Maghreb to the Indus. Brzezinski was not always successful at pushing his own voice within the Carter Administration, as scholars like Todd Rosa remind us, but at least there was a ‘strategic vision.’ Nowadays, however, or so Ferguson would argue, the United States increasingly seems reactive rather than proactive across more or less the space Brzezinski fretted over – think of al-Qaeda franchises in Mali or the current woes over Gaza – plus the challenge of maintaining a balance of power in East and Southeast Asia. First-ever visits to Burma may help, but they’re not a substitute for strategy.

Back to today, then: why has it been so hard, or why was it so hard for the Romney team to voice a credible alternative to the Obama foreign policy? A major part of the problem has to do, surely, with what the Soviet organizations whose files I spend much of my time reading would have called cadre – that is, a lack of credible thinkers and ‘big ideas‘ to help organize what an alternative foreign policy from the Right would look like. Even if David Brooks is on to something when he highlights bloggers like Reihan Salam and Megan McArdle, it is striking how all of the thinkers he names write on domestic, not foreign policy. Whether or not ‘paleoconservatives’ or ‘lower-middle reformists’ manage to take over the domestic policy ideas base of the GOP – which seems doubtful given their relative lack of power compared to perpetual GOP hunk Paul Ryan – the fact remains that in terms of foreign policy the GOP remains a party very much dominated by neoconservatives when it comes to foreign policy. It seems, the GOP became so obsesses with ‘strength’ as opposed to what they saw as Carter-style Democratic ‘weakness’ that their intellectual apparatus simply didn’t work when faced with a Democratic incumbent who has retrenched and extended the Bush legacy of the War on Terror through the surge in Afghanistan, and the intensification of drone wars in Yemen and Pakistan.

All of this makes me wonder: could there be a road out of this for Republicans if only they ditched their fantasy version of late 1970s and early 1980s American history? One area in which the GOP could learn from their idol Reagan is asking themselves what precisely they want out of their obsession with ‘strength’ and, as Romney demanded, more defense spending. Reagan, of course, raised defense spending, but his biographers note that in spite of deploying mid-range Pershing missiles in Europe and initiating programs like the MX ICBM missile, Reagan nourished an almost paranoid fear of nuclear war, and seemed thrilled at the possibility that – whether in Geneva or Reykjavik – he and Mikhail Gorbachev could possibly eliminate the threat of catastrophic nuclear war. Historians of the European Cold War may remind us how much this push for disarmament was tied with fears about Soviet missile superiority, particularly in the European theater, of course. But my bigger point is that I never saw Governor Romney trying to explain the ‘linkage’ – to borrow the Kissingerian term – between his rearmament strategy and other issues. Was our goal to have more bayonets than Beijing, as we already do? Or was the idea to force Tehran to realize it could never win even a shadow war in the Greater Middle East? The GOP team never told us.

What my tea with David Vitter looked like, more or less

Second, and oddly for a ‘conservative’ party, I was struck by the lack of any attempt by the Romney campaign to accuse the present Administration of strategic overreach. Without stretching history too far, the United States today is either militarily engaged or finds itself providing large amounts of aid to some of the same precarious states – Afghanistan, Yemen, Mali, Libya, Iraq – that Moscow did in the late 1970s or 1980s. The irony is doubled in the case of Afghanistan, where, because the United States does not border Afghanistan in the way the USSR did, we find ourselves having to manage an ever-tricky balancing act between two governments in Kabul and Islamabad that are antagonistic to one another.

Without fully endorsing Reagan’s foreign policy, meanwhile – life was certainly no fun in Pakistan under Zia ul-Haq – it strikes me that the GOP could both stay true to principle (or at least not destroy their unifying Reagan myth) and advance a prudent foreign policy by looking back to their idol’s positions on the ‘Arc of Crisis’ in the 1980s: invade pipsqueaks like Grenada, not places known as the ‘graveyard of empires.’ Use the military-industrial complex to bomb dictators for bad behavior; but don’t stick your hands into the beehive of regime change; if you are going to cooperate with odious fundamentalist military dictators, make sure that they’re not fighting the same corrupt government in the country next door that you’re supporting. (Not illegally funneling money and weapons around the world is also probably a good idea.) Adapting historical foreign policy approaches to the present may be an impossible task, but from avoiding entanglement in Libya to Syria to Yemen to trying to convince East and Southeast Asian partners to collaborate more in ASEAN or other fora, there are several more substantial ideas the GOP could have offered than near-racism towards Palestinians and an unimaginative foreign policy itinerary of the UK, Israel, and Poland.

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