The Year That Was
It has been sort of a topos to evoke the specter of 1979. I’ve done it repeatedly, as have other observers.
Aside from the growing stagflation in the U.S. (I remember farming that year at the ending of an inflation-driven boom), that was the year that China invaded Vietnam. Muslims assassinated the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Russia later invaded Afghanistan. The world seemed to have become unhinged. And there was more still.
The shah was abandoned and soon fell, amid American proclamations of support for him on Monday, and then denunciation of his dynasty by Tuesday, and yet more leaked reports on Wednesday of reaching out to Khomeini in Paris. Soon in his death throes he would jet the globe looking for a home and a doctor, as the U.S. let the phone ring when he called.
Soon Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Teheran from Paris and proclaimed an Islamic revolution. Iranian students (Ahmadinejad probably among them) stormed our embassy and took hostages. In no time Ramsey Clark was denouncing America on Iran’s behalf, and rumors abounded of Carter’s backdoor deal-making to get them home at any cost before the 1980 election. (In 1980 a humiliating and disastrous rescue mission would see imams desecrating American dead on worldwide television. I recall an odious Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhal, the hanging judge who sent thousands to the gallows, zipping open the body-bags to poke and probe the charred American corpses.)
The Sandinistas also took over Nicaragua. Radical Islamists torched the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. I could go on, but you get the picture. In all these cases, a baffled Mr. Carter sermonized a lot, blamed a lot — and in the end retired to the Rose Garden or fought rabbits from a canoe. He seemed petulant that he had come into the world in divine fashion to save us, and we flawed mortals were unwilling to be saved by him. The so-called “malaise speech” summed up his disappointment in the rest of us.
And after such a wonderful beginning…
So 1979 followed two years of Carteresque utopian proclamations. Do we remember them all still? There was Cy Vance, in perfect aristocratic style, and in perpetual atonement for his earlier support of the Vietnam War, with his creased brow and sermonizing tone, bringing in the kinder, gentler order. He resigned over the failed hostage rescue, replaced by a stoic Ed Muskie. And there was Andrew Young at the UN trying to be a sort of proto-Barack Obama, reaching out to the radical Palestinians, and so on.
Remember the commandments? No more inordinate fear of communism; human rights governing U.S. foreign policy; no more nuclear weapons housed in South Korea which was to be free of U.S. troops; outreach to the terrorist/rebel/reformer Mugabe, and so on.
In other words, it took a flawed world about 24 months to size up the new idealistic administration, and to determine that it either could not or would not continue U.S. foreign policy of the previous three decades. Soon the more daring then decided to make “regional adjustments.” Finally a panicked Carter was attempting everything from boycotting the Olympics and arming Islamists in Afghanistan to threatening to use nuclear weapons in the Middle East and restoring draft registration to reclaim lost U.S. deterrence.
Here we go again…
Obama started out in similar fashion with his first al-Arabiya interview. Then followed the apology tour, the bowing, the Cairo myth-making speech, the reach out to Ahmadinejad, Assad, Castro, Chavez, and Putin, the estrangement with Israel, the neglect of the brave Iranian dissidents, the phony deadlines over Iranian proliferation, the missile defense walk-back from the Poles and Czechs, the constant Bush-bashing reset-button diplomacy rhetoric, the serial humiliation of things British, the failed deal to appease Putin in hopes of Russian help in stopping Iran from going nuclear, the new loud commitment to the UN, the promises to end all nuclear weapons, the nuke deal with Russia that saw us give up sophisticated weapons to match dismantling of poorer Russian models—all amid a backdrop of massive U.S. spending and the highest two budget deficits in American financial history.
We have sowed and now we shall reap, and so soon we shall endure our first post-national, post-racial, Nobel Laureate president treated quite shabbily by those whom he was supposed to mesmerize. In places like Teheran or Damascus, Obama’s racial heritage, his Harvard Law Review billet, his membership in the Trinity Church, his brotherhood with Wright and Ayers, all that and more mean less than zero. To such thugs, Obama is the face of America, and he is to be tested rather than worshipped. Hugo Chavez is not a Harvard dean; Putin is not a senior Newsweek editor. Their legs do not tingle when they hear the president, except perhaps in giddy anticipation of what they might wrestle from him. They are not impressed with identity politics; they care little for degrees or titles; they have no elite white guilt. Again, Obama is just an American president who must be analyzed, tested, and if need be dared and humiliated.
Back to 1979
In 1979 fashion, we have seen Syria sell missiles to Hezbollah. Iran almost weekly boasts of getting nukes and ending Israel. The North Koreans torpedoed a South Korean ship, killed 46 South Koreans, and await a reply to see how this latest round of extortion works. China seems amused that its neighbors like South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan are learning from the incident that their vibrant economies don’t always translate into real power. Turkey is emerging as the new southeastern regional hegemon, as an Islamist rallying voice against Israel. U.S. nonproliferation policy has been outsourced to Brazil and Turkey. Our sanctions against Teheran are going nowhere.
At the current rate, expect within a year or two for Iran to go nuclear (it will make North Korea’s nuclear antics and extortion seem like child’s play). Worry about some sort of Mideast war, perhaps begun with a tripartite missile shower on Israel, from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. China continues to expand its muscles and hopes that Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea drift away from a weakening U.S. protectorate. I think Turkey is de facto no longer a NATO member as we once knew it (will it evoke Article 5 if it gets into a shooting sea war with Israel?), in the manner Greece is really not a part of the EU (does anyone think it will pay back more than $150 billion at rates at or above 8%). Both stay in these organizations because their charters were obsessed with new memberships without any guide about how to expel existing members. Oddly they both seem to resent northern Europe and the U.S. almost as much as they hate each other. Expect the southern Mediterranean to be a very dangerous place, with Greece, Israel, and Turkey mixed up amid a backdrop of financial insolvency, estrangement from the U.S. and Europe, Iranian nukes, and Islamic adventurism.
In addition a Germany, quite understandably, will begin to look out for its own interests in a way that history warns against. (I half imagine in some vault in a German bank there are trillions of Deutsche marks already printed and waiting.)
All this will transpire, as in 1979, amid utopian rhetoric, bashing of a prior president, and angst, whining, and blame gaming that the world is not working out as it should, given that our own messianic laureate deigned to sacrifice his time and energy on their behalf.
From 1979 to 2010
About every 30-40 years, democratic citizenries begin to become complacent. They assume their defenses are unnecessary if not destabilizing, and take away from more needed social services and income redistribution. Deterrence and preparedness are assumed in turn the stone-age tools of unsophisticated mind. The peace that follows from past victories and postwar deterrence is considered artificial, and can instead grow far more organically from professed good intentions and signs of magnanimity, if not apology. Philosopher kings assure the world of a new age to come, one in which a new human nature replaces the old Neanderthal pessimism. Slogans that “we are the ones we have been waiting for,” “yes, we can,” “this is the moment,” and so on usher in the new golden age, free of nukes and war itself.
Carter’s Christian self-righteousness was simply a religious variant on Wilson’s academic haughtiness; Obama’s elite condescension—human nature can be uplifted and changed if it follows the exalted behavior of our president—is a mixture of Chicago activism and the hothouse of academia.
Again, remember 1979. I imagine that, like Carter, Obama will begin scrambling to restore deterrence, since the alternative would mean the end of his plans for amnesty, cap and trade and more expansion of the social welfare state. So expect a sudden tough line with Korea, more warnings to Iran, and in general some Carter-like posturing to make up for lost time.
We are in a very dangerous age indeed.