Totalitarian Temptations from Carter to Obama

I keep having flashbacks to Jimmy Carter.  The Cairo speech was in many ways a throwback to Carter’s famous “we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism” pronunciamento at Notre Dame. Those old enough, will recall that President Carter in essence said the Soviet Union and international Communism were really nothing to worry about, that the Cold War was over, and that we would henceforth conduct a suitably modest foreign policy instead of the strident, aggressive, morally improper kind that his predecessors had waged. We would support human rights everywhere, but not in such a way as to threaten hostile tyrants.


Thereafter, throughout what used to be known as the Third World, Carter not only abandoned several friendly tyrants (the most famous was the shah of Iran) to insurrections organized by our enemies, but piously acted as if we couldn’t do anything about it anyway, nor should we wish to do so.  After all, we had sinned by supporting those tyrants, and it was only right for them to be overthrown.

In like manner, in today’s Third World, Obama has shown great sympathy for anti-American “revolutionaries,” and abandoned friendly tyrannies such as Mubarak’s Egypt and ben Ali’s Tunisia.  And just as Carter was reluctant to challenge Communist control in the Soviet bloc, Cuba, and Nicaragua, so Obama has been reluctant to support the domestic opponents of Islamist regimes in Damascus and Tehran.  One of the best short summaries of the dangerous foolishness of our current foreign policy goes like this:

Inconsistencies are a familiar part of politics in most societies. Usually, however, governments behave hypocritically when their principles conflict with the national interest. What makes the inconsistencies of the Obama administration noteworthy are, first, the administration’s moralism, which renders it especially vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy; and, second, the administration’s predilection for policies that violate the strategic and economic interests of the United States. The administration’s conception of national interest borders on doublethink: it finds friendly powers to be guilty representatives of the status quo and views the triumph of unfriendly groups as beneficial to America’s “true interests.”


I made one change in the original text.  I inserted “Obama” in place of “Carter.”  The paragraph comes from Jeane Kirkpatrick’s essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which appeared in Commentary magazine in November, 1979.

Kirkpatrick’s critique of Carter is presciently appropriate for Obama.  Like Carter, President Obama is very vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy (if it was right to intervene in Libya, why not in Syria and Iran, two regimes that kill Americans in addition to slaughtering their own?), and there is an additional convergence:  both have instinctive sympathy, even enthusiasm, for self-proclaimed anti-American “revolutionaries.”  Here’s Kirkpatrick again:

…a posture of continuous self-abasement and apology vis-a-vis the Third World is neither morally necessary nor politically appropriate. No more is it necessary or appropriate to support vocal enemies of the United States because they invoke the rhetoric of popular liberation…Liberal idealism need not be identical with masochism, and need not be incompatible with the defense of freedom and the national interest.

Indeed, if you’re really interested in advancing freedom (which those of my ilk believe is of a piece with the American national interest), you should fight against our vocal enemies.  They invariably turn out to be real enemies once they’ve consolidated power.  Barack Obama, say hello to Hugo Chavez.  Try getting along with Ali Khamenei or Bashar Assad.  We told you it wouldn’t work.


But both, to repeat, had a curious sympathy with our enemies.  Carter told the dictator of Poland that he had not given up on bringing the Communist “back to Christianity,” and Obama bows deeply to the Saudi king and has striven mightily to make a deal with the Iranians.

As with the 20th century Fascist and Communist totalitarians, the current crop of Islamist and secular (think Baathist) totalitarians in the Middle East say what they mean, and act on it.

What works?  Ironically, Reagan — the so-called arch-conservative — proved to be the true revolutionary. While liberals like Carter invited the success of radicals who installed totalitarian regimes that worked against us, Reagan supported democratic forces in both friendly and unfriendly tyrannies, from the Soviet Union to Argentina.  Reagan knew what both Carter and Obama reject:  that America is the one truly revolutionary country in the world, and part of our national mission is to support democratic revolutionaries against their oppressors.

Late in the third year of his presidency, Jimmy Carter had an epiphany when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.  At which point, fear of Communism was suddenly no longer irrational in his eyes.  Whereupon, he began the expansion of our military budget that ultimately made the United States so powerful that the grey men in the Kremlin did not dare to lash out at us when the bell tolled for the Soviet Empire.  Obama is now at a similar juncture.  Does he now see the urgency of responding to the anti-American tyrants in Tehran and Damascus?  Will he support their opponents?


Strange things do happen.  Nobody thought Jimmy Carter could turn around and start fighting totalitarian Communism.  But he did.  Can Obama at least support those fighting totalitarian Islamism?

Not bloody likely, but you never know.


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