Jimmy Carter’s disastrous trip to the Middle East — which was really just what the Democrats needed right now — is an object lesson in American foreign-policy myopia. When Carter, shockingly, said that in speaking to dictators, he was speaking “to all the people” under the dictator’s thumb, he revealed something important about himself. Far from being the idealist of legend, he is actually nothing more than an old-style, unreconstructed “realist.”
Carter is forever attempting to cut deals with dictators — as he did in 1994 when he claimed to have solved the North Korean nuclear problem in a one-on-one with Kim Il Sung. He has no choice, really. If you’re an American eminence who wants to make headlines by cutting deals on a foreign trip, you can only do so with a tyranny, because representative governments don’t move quickly enough.
Here’s the thing about dictators: They are very easy to deal with. If you ask them to do something for you, and they agree, it gets done. They don’t have bothersome parliaments or independent courts or restive populaces to hinder their actions. And it is in part for this reason that realists have long looked suspiciously on democratizing as foreign policy. It isn’t just that they are dubious about the capacity of such societies to liberalize; it is also that for the United States, a tyranny may simply be a more practical partner.
I have no doubt that the reason American presidents have spent decades speaking very softly and in kindly terms about Saudi Arabia is that all they have to do is place a phone call to the right person (who was, for decades, Prince Bandar) and they can get something out of the call — something important and useful and entirely clandestine that they believe is in the American national interest. America’s delicacy in dealing with Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf over the past six or seven years is doubtless due to the same sort of thing — Condi or Colin calls, Pervez responds.
Those who believe this kind of relationship is the most and the best Americans can expect from a difficult world usually think of themselves as hardened by experience — serious, appropriately cynical, tough, and without illusion.
We don’t usually think of Carter as a “realist,” in part because he is given to preening moralizing and in part because he is falsely given credit for putting human rights at the center of his foreign policy during his presidency. (I say “falsely” because his administration’s efforts in this regard with the Soviet Union were intended entirely as window-dressing for some very questionable bilateral negotiations; it was Soviet and Eastern European dissidents themselves who figured out how to use the human-rights language in some of these negotiations as a weapon against those awful regimes, a brilliant twist that neither the Soviets nor the Carterites ever anticipated.)
But a realist he is, of a particularly disagreeable sort. A cynic doesn’t usually expect, demand, and need the world to think of him as a saint.