Apologies to Jimmy Carter

Apologies to Jimmy Carter. I have said that he was our worst president at least since the beginningof the 20th century. (I just don’t know enough nineteenth century history to compare him to Buchanan, Pierce, Fillmore, and the other names one hears in the “worst-ever” sweepstakes.)

To be sure, my judgment is based on foreign policy, both because that is what I know about and because I believe that our commander in chief’s foremost responsibility is to steer the ship of state through the ever-perilous tides of global politics. The voters may place pocketbook issues first, but a clever economist once likened the economic tools at a president’s disposal to the switches and levers on a control panel that doesn’t happen to be hooked up to anything.

Jimmy Carter came to office in the aftermath of the globally unpopular war in Vietnam, and he set out to make our country loved again by, as he liked to put it, giving us a foreign policy “as good as the American people.” He pursued this goal by appeasing and apologizing, by coddling foes and denigrating allies, and by emasculating U.S. military and intelligence forces. (Late in his term, a bipartisan coalition of congressional hawks forced through some defense restorations, and although Carter fought these increases tooth and nail, latter-day apologists have claimed that he initiated the defense buildup.)

All of the self-abasement that Carter forced upon America failed to restore out popularity, and instead undermined our security. The number of governments hostile to the United States, as compared to those friendly, grew at a faster pace during Carter’s term than at any other time. One performance was more than enough, and the Americans sent Carter packing in 1980, for which he has clearly never forgiven them.

The core idea of Obama’s approach to the world is identical to Carter’s. Our problem, as the president sees it, is that we are unpopular thanks to our own misdeeds. To Carter, the source was the “arrogance of power” epitomized by our involvement in Vietnam. To Obama, it is the arrogance of George W. Bush and our invasion of Iraq.

The goal of Obama’s policy, like Carter’s, is to atone as demonstratively as possible, so that the rest will see that we have mended our ways. Seventeen months in, this is already a whopping failure, leading me to dwell on the obvious comparison.

And then it hit me. This is unfair to Carter. Obama is clearly worse.

I say this for two serious reasons. First, for all his foolishness, Carter made one major positive contribution. He elevated the issue of human rights to a higher priority than ever before. True, he made a hash of it. Since America is the main engine of human rights around the world, there is no way to reconcile the advancement of human rights with the retreat of America that Carter favored. But subsequent administrations fine-tuned the policy, and it has done much good, retaining a place high on the list of US policy goals until the accession of Barack Obama, who has pushed it to the bottom of the agenda.

Second, the global situation facing the US when Carter took office was extremely disadvantageous. In the Cold War, what the Communists called the “correlation of forces” had tipped a considerable distance in their favor. America had lost 50,000 soldiers in Vietnam (as compared to 4,000 in Iraq). The Watergate scandal, punctuated by the resignation in disgrace of first the vice president, then the president, had strained the political fabric of the nation to its limit. Yes, Carter’s policies made things worse, but he was dealt a piss-poor hand.

In contrast, at the time of Obama’s swearing-in, although America’s popularity ratings were again swooning, almost everything else on the world scene was favorable. America continued to stand as the only superpower. Democracy had spread to nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries (compared to about one-third when Carter came in). In contrast to our spirit-crushing defeat in Vietnam, the “surge” apparently snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq. Seven years after 9/11, terrorists had not been able to pull off another attack on US soil. True, the Iranian nuclear program posed a gathering menace, Afghanistan was deteriorating, and Pakistan was shaky, but compared to what Carter faced, the world Obama inherited was a bed of roses.

Thanks to Obama’s foolhardy approach to the world, this is unlikely to be true for his successor. So, again, apologies to Carter. And here’s hoping there is a staunch leader out there ready to rescue us from Obama’s legacy just as Ronald Reagan saved us from Carter’s.

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