Obama as Carter

I’ve wrote several times here that Obama’s foreign policy scares me, and Robert D. Kaplan said something along the same lines on several occasions. And as a safe Democratic state votes for a Republican in the election to replace the late Senator Ted Kennedy, pundits are buzzing as to what this means with regard to health care and the economy. Yet a few people are looking at foreign policy, and the conclusion by Walter Russel Mead, writing the cover story in FP, is that Obama must fix his split personality.

obama carterLike Carter in the 1970s, Obama comes from the old-fashioned Jeffersonian wing of the Democratic Party, and the strategic goal of his foreign policy is to reduce America’s costs and risks overseas by limiting U.S. commitments wherever possible. He’s a believer in the notion that the United States can best spread democracy and support peace by becoming an example of democracy at home and moderation abroad. More than this, Jeffersonians such as Obama think oversize commitments abroad undermine American democracy at home. Large military budgets divert resources from pressing domestic needs; close association with corrupt and tyrannical foreign regimes involves the United States in dirty and cynical alliances; the swelling national-security state threatens civil liberties and leads to powerful pro-war, pro-engagement lobbies among corporations nourished on grossly swollen federal defense budgets.

While Bush argued that the only possible response to the 9/11 attacks was to deepen America’s military and political commitments in the Middle East, Obama initially sought to enhance America’s security by reducing those commitments and toning down aspects of U.S. Middle East policy, such as support for Israel, that foment hostility and suspicion in the region. He seeks to pull U.S. power back from the borderlands of Russia, reducing the risk of conflict with Moscow. In Latin America, he has so far behaved with scrupulous caution and, clearly, is hoping to normalize relations with Cuba while avoiding collisions with the “Bolivarian” states of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

As Obama is pledging to make the world a more peaceful, safer place and being friends with everyone, it’s worth remembering that Carter came into the White House promising to end the Cold War. Four years later, he was supporting the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, increasing the defense budget, and laying the groundwork for an expanded U.S. presence in the Middle East.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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9 Responses to Obama as Carter

  1. Graham J. says:

    I think that while there’s a point to your original argument, you have to separate the Massachusetts election from any concerns over foreign policy. Hell, that election was barely about a national policy, and more about a) local issues to the commonwealth and b) Democrats nominating another goddamn Shannon O’Brien for statewide office.

    But as for Obama, if the electorate really is as divided as this election ‘proves’, I think he may well find salvation as a foreign policy president, even if that’s not at all what he really wanted to do in office (sort of an exact opposite of Richard Nixon). The downside, of course, is the problems and solutions he inherited (i.e. Iraq and the surge) have been fully inherited no matter what he might claim, and so if the surge now fails and Iraq collapse (as Ricks is forecasting), then he’s absolutely, utterly screwed.

  2. Klaus says:

    I appreciate your posting of the links to both your own and Kaplan’s previous posts on the subject of Obama’s foreign policy.

    That said, reading those links, surely it can’t have escaped your notice that both you and Kaplan were (to date) entirely wrong on the subject of Iraq. 2009 was the least bloody year since the conflict began.

    Also worth noting is the lack of an argument in your post. You comment on Obama’s “split personality” and then quote at length a post that simply states his overall foreign policy view rather than making your case for a disconnect. Am I missing something?

    I thoroughly relish your work, but this post strikes me as incomplete.

  3. Curzon says:

    Certainly the art of forecasting is a tough one, and if you looked through all my forecasts in previous posts, you’d see me predicting Nepal becoming Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Japan’s LDP winning yet another term, and much more that turned out to be incorrect.

    Yet while Kaplan, I and many others may have been inaccurate in the specific details of our forecasts, I think the fundamental criticisms we have regarding the direction and governing philosophies behind his foreign policy (made based primarily on his speeches and the people he was selecting to work in his administration, and made before he even became president) have remained pretty accurate. I look forward to seeing how things go from here, as the next year in particular will see how Obama’s “speak softly, carry no stick” policy work out in places like Egypt, Cuba, Yemen, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran.

  4. Eddie says:

    Aside from North Korea (where he’s continued the failure of the Clinton and Bush Administration policies), I see a fast-learning president who eventually corrects many of the initial mistakes he or his team have made.
    To wit,

    On Iran, he was too careful not to play into the hands of the military junta there and was viewed as uncaring about the Iranian protesters. He’s changed tone since the first few weeks and his offer of better relations and talks with Iran’s leadership now look authentic in the eyes of the world, who now see a blatant dictatorship self-destructing its own legitimacy with clerics, business elements, and even formerly supportive conservatives.

    With Afghanistan, he demurred too early to the view that it could be saved immediately no matter the cost and then realized the enormity of the problem in the absence of progress in Pakistan (and the often active obstructionism of that government) , so he forced the military/intel/State axis to justify how success could happen and put their credibility primarily on the line with the troop surge through 2011 rather than his.

    With Honduras, he screwed up royally in the beginning from a tactical point of view but placed the US on the super majority side of Latin American opinion that the US has often been on the wrong side of for years by talking tough about the government being illegitimate. Then HRC bailed us out of a long-term problem with months of patient negotiating and he blessed the explicit policy flip-flop that went largely unnoticed on the Latin American street.

    With China, he avoided most of the idiotic populist posturing expected out of Democrats and has deftly tried to set the stage for China, not the US, being the whipping boy of 2010 and beyond. Its not America’s economy harming the rest of the world’s, its not America’s allies spreading instability and problems in various regions, and its not America increasingly seen as the superpower acting without consideration of the interests of others.

    Sure, he shares some similarities with Carter (though he shares many more with GW Bush and GHW Bush ,who also was exasperated by an unrealistic Israeli leadership). At this point though, this has been about as good a FP year as any president in his position could have expected.

    I do agree the next year will be far more telling, but most of those events are also out of his control (especially North Korea and Iran) .

  5. Peter says:

    I second the separation of the Mass. election. There’s nothing “safe” about the voters (or the weather) there.

    Cf. Bill Weld.

    I suppose what we need is another actor with Alzheimer’s in the White House…

  6. Curzon says:


  7. Roy Berman says:

    ” I look forward to seeing how things go from here, as the next year in particular will see how Obama’s “speak softly, carry no stick” policy work out in places like Egypt, Cuba, Yemen, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. ”
    Don’t forget that, despite many predictions to the contrary, Obama in fact ended up escalating our military involvement in Afghanistan. This does not lead me to make any particular predictions for how he will act in the future, except to say that his calculated persona and actual policy are often at odds, making future actions in certain areas hard to predict.

  8. Curzon says:

    “Obama in fact ended up escalating our military involvement in Afghanistan. ”

    Carter increased the defense budget, began our support to the Afghan anti-Soviet forces, and brought about the “Carter Doctrine” which basically said we would intervene in the Middle East if our oil supplies were at risk. He certainly knew how to act tough when required. That wasn’t his problem — his problem was eratically saying nice things about our enemies and doing unpleasant things to our friends. Like how:
    * he called the Shah a leader of supreme wisdom when in Iran, but then refused to intervene to stop or guide the Iranian Revolution and even refused the Shah a place to stay when he went into exile, even on grounds of medical emergency.
    * gave back the Panama canal to an unelected military dictatorship
    * criticized Iran’s Shah for human rights abuses but not the Saudi regime

    Obama’s challenge will be to make him not look weak and contradictory by criticizing Israel but not Saudi, Nicaragua but not Venezuela, and keeping our friends and allies happy and not sacrifice those relationships in exchange for growing closer to our enemies.

  9. ral says:

    I think of Obama more like a Nixon…coming into office with 2 wars on , economic problems , and have to live up to his slogan during the election of ending/getting out of the war without being accused of “being soft” …but from different parties. Nixon’s Vietnam Laos, Cambodia is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen…but Kissinger is no yet Hillary Clinton….