During Senator Barack Obama’s bad week last week, when he lost Pennsylvania, Jimmy Carter’s rogue diplomatic mission to the Middle East did not help. I know of no surveys tracking the impact of Carter’s Hamas hug on Obama’s popularity. Still, Democrats who want a muscular, effective American response to Islamism noticed. Having this presidential has-been embracing terrorists haunted Obama, with Carter as the ghost of Christmas past preying on fears that Obama himself will be the ghost of Christmas future, perpetually globetrotting, blinded by moral relativism, imprisoned by lovely rhetoric and high ideals, absolving dictators and terrorists of their anti-American sins and crimes against humanity.
In fact, Obama forcefully condemned Carter’s meeting with the Hamas leadership. Nevertheless, acting more shrewdly than fairly, Senator John McCain pounced. McCain understood that Carter’s trip made the time right to exploit one Hamas leader’s recent pronouncement that “We like Mr. Obama.” McCain responded: “I never expect for the leader of Hamas… to say that he wants me as president of the United States.” The Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory reappearance on Monday, praising Carter, denouncing Zionism, further eased McCain’s Obama-Carter-Hamas bankshot.
Had Jimmy Carter succeeded as president, Barack Obama would be emphasizing their parallels. Like Carter in 1976, Obama has rocketed to presidential-level prominence with a simple, compelling message. Like Carter, Obama has little formal foreign policy experience. And like Carter, Obama seems most comfortable with the Democratic Party’s post-Vietnam, anti-war wing.
Unfortunately, Carter’s high ideals often produced great disasters. Although he successfully facilitated the Camp David Accords and Panama Canal return, Jimmy Carter inherited a demoralized nation — and left it deeply depressed. In abandoning the Shah of Iran, Carter eased the Islamist takeover there, a critical turning point in Islamism’s rise worldwide. When the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary goons kidnapped American diplomats, Carter’s impotence saddled America with the image of a musclebound giant in ways still haunting the country.
Like a substitute teacher losing control, Carter ricocheted between being contemptibly weak, and unduly harsh. Carter’s mix of high ideals and rank amateurism in dealing with the Soviet Union made him take everything too personally, and miss the mark tactically. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan he felt insulted, after all his lovely overtures. In 1980, Ronald Reagan did not win a mandate for conservative revolution but triumphed in an ABC election – voters wanted Anybody But Carter.
As an ex-President, despite his laudable commitment to fighting disease and building houses for the homeless, Carter’s diplomatic efforts are often laughable. Carter has frittered away his credibility by kowtowing to dictators and outlaws, from China to North Korea, from Zimbabwe to Nepal. His perceptions of Israel have been particularly skewed and harsh. His book accusing Israel of the South African crime of Apartheid, was sloppy and intellectually lazy – slapping on an inflammatory title while only perfunctorily discussing the charge in the text.
On this recent Middle East trip, Carter demonstrated his bias and self-delusion. By laying a wreath at Yasir Arafat’s grave, Carrer dishonored the memory of two American diplomats Arafat ordered killed in Khartoum in 1973, George Curtis Moore and Cleo Noel, in addition to thousands of other terrorist victims. After undermining American policy by meeting with Hamas’s leaders, Carter proclaimed that Hamas was clearly committed to a cease fire – until his hosts clarified that their offer was more ambiguous. And in his post-trip New York Times op-ed, Carter again showed that his delusional diplomacy rests on his distorting of history. Carter said “Hamas had been declared a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel,” without mentioning the terrorism that prompted the designation. Carter said “Eventually, Hamas gained control of Gaza,” without mentioning the violence Hamas used against fellow Palestinians to gain that control.
There is nothing wrong with Carter being pro-Palestinian. He errs by failing to use his credibility with Palestinians to wean destructive Palestinian forces like Hamas from their addiction to terrorism. Sanitizing Hamas feeds delusions that enable more violence.
Unfortunately, Carter is a hero to those in the Democratic Party who, doubly traumatized by the Vietnam and Iraq wars, pooh-pooh any threats to America because America does not always handle the threats effectively. Some prominent liberals such as Paul Berman and Peter Beinart have argued that it is particularly absurd for liberals, academics, intellectuals, students, feminists, and gays to ignore the dangers of Islamism.
As a prominent opponent of the Iraq War, Barack Obama has deep roots in this “Peace Camp” that too often overlooks grave threats to peace. Moreover, Obama’s stated willingness to meet with America’s enemies, including the anti-American, anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also reeks of this appeasement-oriented Carterism.
Obama’s challenge – and opportunity – is to move beyond American foreign policy’s simplistic hawk-versus-dove, deluded-peacenik-versus-paranoid-warrior polarities. Obama must bury Carterism and Bushism along with the assumption that the only choice is the false choice between them. He must show he recognizes that there is a time for peace and a time for war, a time to boycott and a time to negotiate, a time to defy and a time to concede.
The world is too complicated, for someone to become president stuck singing in only one key. America’s next leader must synthesize Jimmy Carter’s idealism with George W. Bush’s anger, George H.W. Bush’s coalition-building patience with Ronald Reagan’s saber-rattling resolve, Bill Clinton’s ability to charm the world with Richard Nixon’s ability to understand it.
Those skills are difficult to demonstrate while campaigning. But Obama was right to distance himself from Carter’s amoral grandstanding and Wright’s wrongheaded rants. Obama should worry about how to reassure American voters who see the evil in the world, without alienating his base among those who are far quicker to see faults in America than in America’s enemies.