James Earl Obama

Is Obama really like Carter? There have been many who have made the connection based on the similarities of a faltering economy and a weak foreign policy. I don’t think the connection is entirely accurate based on the two men’s personality and presidential style. In personality, Obama is actually rather more like Nixon. He seems to be an introvert who doesn’t like people all that much and is not really a natural politician. He also has a nasty, vindictive side to his personality, like Nixon. Obama does not seem to be quite the intellectual Nixon was, though Nixon was careful to hide this in order to appeal to the ordinary people.

In governing style, Obama and Carter could not be more dissimilar. Carter was a micromanager, who oversaw everything that was going on in the White House, perhaps at the expense of losing sight of the big picture. Obama does not seem to be interested in the minutiae of governing and seems to leave the details to others. Perhaps he sees himself as being like Reagan who set the overall policies and left the details to his staff. Obama has taken this as far as largely outsourcing his legislative work, including his signature achievement Obamacare, to the Congressional Democrats.

In this column, in USA Today, Robert Pastor argues that Barack Obama is indeed like Jimmy Carter, and that is a good thing. Here are a few excerpts and comments.

Both think that war should be the last option, and that a multilateral approach is a better way to share the burden and to strengthen alliances. To rescue our hostages and mete out justice to bin Laden, Carter and Obama took risks. Carter’s rescue mission in Iran failed, though he did get all our hostages out safely. Obama succeeded against bin Laden, but we suffered a terrible loss at the U.S. Consulate in Libya with the death of our ambassador and three other Americans.

I don’t think that we have ever had a President who didn’t believe that war must be the last option. The trouble lies in understanding how to prevent wars. Obama and Carter both seem to believe that the US is the problem in the world and therefore if only we adopt a humbler posture, other nations will reciprocate. This really doesn’t work. In fact, potential aggressors are likely to view an apologetic America as a weaker America and will be more inclined to cause trouble. I do not think that it was a coincidence that the hostages were released on the last day of Carter’s presidency. The leadership of Iran reasoned that Reagan was more likely to behave aggressively and decided that the costs of continuing to hold the hostages was greater than the benefits.

Carter and Obama both understand that peace in the Middle East requires pressure on both sides. Carter paid a political price but succeeded at Camp David. Obama tried but failed. Believing our interests are identical with one side, Romney might not even try.

Threatening war against Iran and Syria as Romney has done might be more satisfying than negotiating with fanatics, but Carter’s goal was to gain the release of U.S. hostages and Obama’s is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. If we see negotiations as weakness, we will be left with no other option but war. Obama is not Carter, and the times are very different. But Carter’s legacy is instructive for both candidates. Strength should be judged by a willingness to make decisions that might be unpopular but would advance the national interest.

It may well be that war is the only option left with Iran. Whether or not the leadership of Iran is made up of fanatics, the simple truth is that there is little, or nothing we can offer them that might induce them to give up the quest for nuclear weapons. They are rational enough to understand that if they acquire nuclear weapons, they will be in a far better negotiating position. They interests lies in delaying any present negotiations until they gain nuclear weapons.

As for Camp David, Carter actually had little to do with that. The peace between Israel and Egypt came about because Anwar Sadat realized that Egypt would never be able to defeat Israel. He therefore decided that Egypt had more to gain with peace than by continued fighting. If Sadat had good reason to believe that Israel was weak and could be defeated, he would not have made peace. The problem in the Middle East right now is that Israel’s enemies have good reason to believe that by continuing their efforts to isolate and delegitimize Israel, they can weaken and ultimately defeat Israel. Undermining Israel, as all of the people who profess to be for peace seem to be doing, only makes peace less likely because it gives Israel’s enemies hope that they can prevail.

And yes, our interests are largely identical with one side. Israel is a democracy with values similar to our own. Its enemies are terrorists and dictatorships who hate us, and our values. I do not believe we should be even-handed at all in our relations in the region. We should support our friends and oppose our enemies.

With that criterion, Carter’s decision to negotiate a Panama Canal Treaty — a very unpopular but essential decision — should qualify. Carter promoted human rights not just against our Cold War enemies, but also against anti-communist military regimes. He was not afraid to negotiate with adversaries, establishing relations with China and securing the release of 3,600 political prisoners and CIA veterans from Cuba.

I am not at all convinced that handing over the most important maritime trade route over to an unstable, corrupt nation is such a good idea, not to mention the simple fact that we were the ones who built it. The problem wasn’t with Carter’s willingness to negotiate with out adversaries. The problem is that Carter gave the impression of being a weakling who would turn against out allies to appease our enemies. It was all very well to make human rights a keystone of our foreign policy, but if we restrict our alliances to nations with perfect human rights records, we will find ourselves with very few friends in the world. We don’t often have a clear choice between good and bad. More often the choice is between bad and worse. Communism was the greatest threat to human rights throughout the Cold War, and by losing sight of this fact, Carter did the cause he professed to support a great deal of harm.

It’s time to re-define what we mean by strength and weakness. Strength should mean the readiness to take necessary but unpopular decisions. Leadership requires understanding the perspective of our adversaries and negotiating with persistence rather than assuming that our interests are incompatible and that only force can achieve our goals. Americans should be reminded of the many hard, but courageous, decisions Carter made and why we are better off because of them.

We are not precisely because Carter did not understand the need to be strong. International politics has not really changed all that much in the last five thousand years of recorded history. Names and customs change, but the realities of power do not. The most important of these realities is that if you truly want peace, you must be prepared to fight for it. Expressing an unwillingness to ever fight, or signaling that you want peace at any price is the surest way to war. Negotiations are good, so long as you are negotiating to advance your country’s interests and not talking for the sake of talking to avoid conflict.


One thought on “James Earl Obama”

  1. This all being said, I think America should pull back from the world a fair bit. With 40% of the whole planet’s military spending coming from America, it encourages other nations to rely on America to get everything done. It’s time for America to become somewhat more isolationist and only deal with a core group of nations, pull out of overseas bases, etc.


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