When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited Damascus back in April, it was easy to dismiss him as an embarrassing crackpot. After all, the Bush administration had clearly distanced itself from Carter, thus ensuring the total irrelevance of his meetings with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal. In turn, the damage resulting from Carter’s visit was limited to public diplomacy: for example, during one of his typically desperate Dixie Chicks moments, Carter denounced Americans’ views on the Middle East to an assembly of Egyptian university students.
Well, Carter’s fortunes have changed significantly since April. Indeed, President-elect Barack Obama’s pledge to pursue diplomacy with Syria has given Carter a new opening for interfering with U.S. foreign policy – an opportunity that Carter has wasted no time in seizing.
Yesterday, during his latest meeting with Assad in Damascus, Carter committed the incoming administration to stronger ties with Syria, and further stated that Obama would fulfill his campaign promises on Iraq, “which will lead to better relations with the states of the region.” The former U.S. president thereby raised Assad’s expectations significantly, pressuring Obama against possible backtracking and undermining the incoming administration’s foreign policy flexibility.
Of course, Obama richly deserves Carter’s cornering. Only two days after winning the election, Obama dispatched the terminally wrong-headed Robert Malley to Damascus with promises that Syrian interests would be taken into “greater account.” By eschewing diplomatic gradualism in favor of this starry-eyed pursuit of Assad, the President elect had already undermined his flexibility vis-à-vis Syria.
Still, there’s a small chance that Carter’s freelance meddling will backfire. Remember: Barack Obama is arguably the most image-conscious politician ever, and Carter’s unseemly diplomatic sideshow just might provide a cautionary tale to the fastidiously cautious President-elect. Obama’s political advisers must recognize that Carter’s ongoing intervention on behalf of rogue leaders – including Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chavez – has made him a constant target of derision, and significantly undermined his public authority. Does Obama really want to cast his lot with the likes of Jimmy Carter, negating whatever he might achieve as president with profoundly naïve antics?
Only time will tell.