From the outset of the Obama presidency and the emergence of the Obama Doctrine, the similarities between this Administration and that of Jimmy Carter have been striking. Like Obama, Carter trumpeted soft power and international institutions as the means to solve the most perplexing foreign policy problems. The programs of both Presidents hinged on the cooperation of adversaries who interpreted the U.S. initiatives as signs of weakness, and in the second half of their presidencies, both faced the prospect of sharp reversals.
The current turmoil in the Middle East recalls again the troubles confronting Carter. “In Year One, Carter invested all the international prestige of his presidency in diplomacy and image-making. His energy was dedicated almost exclusively to ‘making nice’ on the world stage. It’s what drove his actions in the Israeli-Egyptian peace process, at strategic-arms limitation talks and in negotiating the Panama Canal Treaty.” Then Carter stood by impotently as violence engulfed Iran, revolutionaries danced in the rubble of the U.S. embassy, and Americans were held hostage. Equally controversial and damaging for Carter was the American response to the Kawangju student protests in South Korea. As the senior U.S. commander at the time recalled, “It was a setback to the democratization process in the [Republic of Korea] and a poor harbinger for the human rights goals that were central to President Carter’s foreign policy.”
This White House has seen similar reversals—failing to deter aggression from Iran, Hamas, or Hezbollah. Now, Egypt finds itself on the tipping point. This Administration’s halting and tentative response is “emblematic of a White House that lacks a serious plan for dealing with a part of the world where the U.S. has vital strategic interests.”
If President Obama continues to pursue a Carteresque foreign policy—talking softly while whittling away at the stick—he will only put American lives and the prospects for peace at greater jeopardy. It is past time for this Administration to change course. For starters, the U.S. needs a proactive agenda for responding to the situation in Egypt.