To Hell in a Handbasket:
Carter, Obama, and
the ‘Arab Spring’
By Ruthie Blum
RVP Press, 201 pages
Pundits have rehearsed the similarities between Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama so often that it’s hard to imagine one saying something new and interesting on the matter. Yet, in To Hell in a Handbasket, Ruthie Blum has managed to do just that. This fine analysis of the disturbing parallels between Carter’s obsequious and naive approach to the 1979 Revolution in Iran and Obama’s response to the so-called Arab Spring at last puts flesh on the bones of Carter-2.0 criticism.
A longtime editor and columnist at the Jerusalem Post (and sister of Commentary editor John Podhoretz), Blum writes that our 39th and 44th presidents demonstrate “how a short-sighted leader of the Free World, in an attempt to ingratiate himself with—rather than defeat—the forces that would see him and it destroyed, enabled the rise and spread of a pernicious form of radicalism that threatens the globe to this day.” Drawing on her experience reporting on the Middle East, and on interviews with the likes of Henry Kissinger, Bernard Lewis, and Bruce Laingen (the most senior American official imprisoned in the Tehran embassy), Blum paints a chilling double portrait of flat-footed leaders facing Islamist tsunamis some three decades apart.
The off-stage details of the twin dramas are as similar as the crises themselves. During the Iranian Revolution, Carter faced a “plate full of other concerns at home and abroad,” Blum writes. Throughout the current revolts, Obama has been beset by problems that are strikingly similar to those of the Carter years: ballooning energy prices, an unpopular auto bailout, rising unemployment, foundering attempts at health-care reform, the ever-present Arab-Israeli conflict, troubled arms talks with Russia, and problematic economic dealings with China.
Both presidents have also come up against similar barriers when looking for international help beyond the crisis region. During the Iran disaster, the mullahs’ allies thwarted U.S.-led efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic. Most important, the Soviet Union vetoed a proposed embargo just as it was launching a military adventure in neighboring Afghanistan. Today, despite a policy “reset,” Moscow works against almost all Washington’s stated foreign-policy aims, in the Muslim world and beyond. When Obama appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to help ease Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from power, Putin immediately redoubled support for his ally in Damascus.
But the most telling connection between Carter’s and Obama’s failures is to be found in their shared view of foreign relations. Then, as now, the American president has invested an almost religious faith in the power of negotiations with Tehran only to see the Iranians pocket every U.S. concession and drag out talks for strategic purposes. Today’s wave of convulsions in the Arab world started in Iran during the summer of 2009, when the popular Green Revolution took to the streets to protest rigged elections. Obama, like Carter, has made a priority of talking to the regime in Tehran as if it were composed of cooperative, if misunderstood, partners. In so doing, he has squandered a once-in-a-generation opportunity to support liberal, pro-America Iranians. By the time the administration’s inaction had become undeniable, Blum writes, “the ‘Green Revolution’ had not merely wilted; it had been mown down.”
The upshot of this tendency to grovel to autocratic leaders—instead of even appealing to their countries’ peoples—is American paralysis during times of transition. In 1979, Carter abandoned the deposed Shah and stood by as the Ayatollah Khomeini assumed leadership; in 2011, Obama unceremoniously washed his hands of the ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and sat idle while the Muslim Brotherhood ascended to power. Both men, once resigned to passivity, could do little but hope for the best and wish the new regimes well. Blum notes that Carter administration functionaries such as UN Ambassador Andrew Young “waxed poetic” about Khomeini’s “progressive” Islamic outlook while ignoring his widely available extremist writings. Obama himself reassured the Muslim world, in a speech at Cairo University: “Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism—it is an important part of promoting peace.”
In shying away from any American effort to shape events as they unfolded, the two presidents doubtless believed themselves to be making a therapeutic break from America’s traditional global-leadership role. Speaking about the overthrow of Mubarak, Obama sought to highlight the potential for positive change that could come about spontaneously, without American interference. He praised “a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represent[s] their hopes and not their fears, a government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations.”
But when he supported the notion that democratic reform could take root without guidance or pressure to create sound economic and political institutions, it was “not conventional wisdom that Obama was abandoning, but wisdom altogether,” Blum argues. She has proved prescient. Through the new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood has filled the national power vacuum with Islamist oppression, immediately pushing for legislation hostile to women, non-Muslims, and Western ideals of liberal governance. What’s more, the Brotherhood “is itself a conduit of terrorism, not an organization aimed at stamping out the phenomenon,” as Blum puts it. While the group eschews violence when politically convenient—subcontracting acts of terror to the even more extreme Salafists—it unapologetically promotes the spread of sharia worldwide. The Khomeinists of the Carter years were proponents of a Shiite version of the same.
Blum artfully characterizes Obama’s much-lampooned “hope and change” slogan as “hope for the international community that America would change for the better.” In this regard, Obama, in the manner of Carter, has been half successful. His foreign-policy naiveté has changed America, but not for the better. Blum quotes one foreign-policy expert’s opinion that the Obama-Carter “approach to international relations—cold-shouldering democratic allies and kowtowing to dictatorial adversaries—has not only been distinctly counterintuitive but disastrously counterproductive.”
While Blum evinces an impressive command of events from the two eras, she’s on surer footing when recounting the horrors of the Iran crisis than in describing the current ferment. Accordingly, she devotes substantially less space to the present day.
There are, to be sure, some notable differences between the two presidencies. Carter’s effort to rescue American hostages in Iran crashed and burned in the Persian desert, but Obama successfully thwarted a similar, if lesser, hostage-taking disaster in Israel’s Cairo embassy late last year. This is to say nothing of his operation to liquidate Osama bin Laden, the most vile Islamist of our age. Whether the failure of one and the success of the other is a matter of leadership or luck we shall never know. But the political ramifications of these differences are very real. Carter’s ineffectiveness sparked a vigorous primary challenge from the left in the person of Sen. Edward Kennedy, whose insurgency fatally wounded the president’s reelection prospects. Obama, understandably, has pushed his bin Laden triumph to the forefront of his reelection argument.
Perhaps the difference between the two men can best be glimpsed in Carter’s criticism of the current administration. In June, he took to the pages of the New York Times to lament that the national-security practices of Obama (following those of George W. Bush) have meant that “the United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.” At the beginning of his own presidency, Carter paid some lip service to the support of political freedom worldwide, and his criticism of Obama recalls that brief flirtation. But it also denotes a disdain for forward-leaning national-security policies that Obama seems not entirely to share.
Nevertheless, the similarities eclipse such minor contrasts. And, in truth, Carter’s liberal instincts only came to full leftist fruition in the years since he left office. If his case is an accurate predictive model, it may offer some sense of what Obama could become as an ex-president. Perhaps Blum should begin preparing volume two.