The Carter-Obama parallel

James Kirchick compares the foreign policy records of Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter. He finds that President Obama’s is worse.

I agree with Kirchick. As he explains, Carter eventually saw the error of his weak ways and changed course, though it took a series of major setbacks for him to accomplish this.

With Obama we have had the serious setbacks — e.g., the Benghazi attacks, the rise of al Qaeda and al Qaeda-like terrorist legions, and the fall of vast chunks of Iraq — without the realization of error and the course correction.

I disagree with Kirchick on one point, though. He perceives a strong similarity between Obama’s “Cairo speech” and the address in which Carter told America to overcome its “inordinate fear of Communism.”

Re-reading the Cairo speech, I don’t see the parallel. As I read it, Obama never suggests that our fear of Islamism is inordinate. Rather, he states that “we will relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security.” Indeed, he emphasizes that his “first duty as President is to protect the American people” from such threats.

Obama does reject the view that America is, or should be, “at war with Islam.” However, Obama wasn’t breaking new ground here. President Bush often made the same point.

Bush went so far as to appoint one his most trusted advisers, Karen Hughes, as the point person for outreach by the State Department to the Muslim world. And he liked to call Islam “the religion of peace.”

I’m not defending this approach; in fact I didn’t like it when Bush tried it. But Bush’s tendency to praise Islam, almost certainly sincerely, didn’t cause him to be soft when it came to combating Islamic extremists.

Similarly, nothing in Obama’s praise precluded firmer policies. Had Obama surged in Afghanistan without setting a timetable for withdrawal; had he armed the non-jihadist rebels in Syria early on and provided them with air support; had he negotiated a status of forces agreement in Iraq that left behind a substantial force to train government troops; had he either “led from the front” in Libya or stayed out of that dispute altogether — in each instance, he would not have acted inconsistently with the praise of Islam that he spewed in Cairo.

The Cairo speech has flaws, to be sure. But as I reread it five years later, my main reaction is regret that Obama didn’t more closely adhere to what he told his audience that day.

For example, Obama stated, “when innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience.” Yet, Obama has taken no meaningful action to halt the slaughter of innocents in Syria.

With respect to Afghanistan, Obama stated:

We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not the case. And that’s why we’re partnering with a coalition of 46 countries. And despite the costs involved, America’s commitment will not weaken.

Unfortunately, violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan are still determined to kill as many Americans they possibly can. Meanwhile, Obama’s commitment has all but evaporated.

On Iraq, Obama promised to “support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron.” But Obama essentially washed his hands of Iraq, with catastrophic consequences.

On Israel, Obama tried to speak in even-handed terms — too even-handed, as far as I’m concerned, but not all that different from those uttered by various administration officials during Bush’s second term. While pledging to work for a Palestinian state, Obama insisted that “Palestinians must abandon violence;” that “the Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern with institutions that serve the needs of its people;” and that “Hamas must put an end to violence.”

Unfortunately, Obama’s pursuit of a Palestinian state was one-sided. Along with Hillary Clinton, he harangued Israel for its policy on settlements, while refusing to hold Palestinian feet to the fire. In fact, Obama seemed largely to ignore the violence and abuses of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

On democracy in the Arab world, Obama was for it, naturally. However, he added an important caveat:

[T]here are some who advocate for democracy only when they’re out of power. Once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others.

So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

Obama also denounced the “disturbing tendency among some Muslims to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of someone else’s faith.” And he expressed his support for “religious diversity,” including tolerance for “the Copts in Egypt.”

But when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt and engaged in just the suppression that Obama had warned against, including the harsh suppression of Copts, Obama’s support for that government did not waver.

In sum, although Obama’s Cairo speech is flawed, I don’t view it as a roadmap to the misguided, and in some instances disastrous, policies that followed. Rather, I think it promised something better, though far from ideal.

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