He followed an unpopular president. He received a strong election mandate. He changed the tone in Washington, D.C.
He said human rights mattered, that America’s image in the world had to be remade.
He would receive a Nobel Peace Prize.
As the end of his presidency’s first year drew near, the future looked bright. He had brought change — change that mattered.
It was 1977. The next year was very bad.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter negotiated the Camp David Accords, formalizing peace between Israel and Egypt (it’s what won him the Nobel). He also signed a bill that legalized the home-brewing of beer. Almost all the other news that year proved uniformly bad.
A Soviet-backed coup in Afghanistan paved the way for Moscow’s future invasion of the country. Demonstrations against the shah wracked the Iranian regime, paving the way for revolution and the rise of the ayatollahs. Trouble erupted across Africa, from Somalia to Zaire and Zambia, some of it inspired by Soviet meddling.
From then on, national-security challenges and foreign policies only worsened. It helped make Carter’s stint in the White House one term.
Why did things go south for Carter so fast? Because America’s enemies had taken measure of the man during his first, change-filled year in office. They saw weaknesses they could exploit. In the second year, they made their move.
In Year One, Carter invested all the international prestige of his presidency in diplomacy and image-making. His energy was dedicated almost exclusively to “making nice” on the world stage. It’s what drove his actions in the Israeli-Egyptian peace process, at strategic-arms limitation talks and in negotiating the Panama Canal Treaty.
It was a perpetual exercise in “soft power.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, except. …
At the same time the White House was amping up the soft power, it was also looking to cut back on military commitments.
Faced with a troubled economy, the Carter administration was also looking to cut back on military spending. Thus, the president embraced Defense Secretary Harold Brown’s “offset” strategy. The Armed Forces would buy nothing new. The Pentagon would “skip a generation” and “rethink” military needs.
Our enemies saw a distracted and humbled America that tried to substitute rhetoric for reality. They went on the offensive.
There’s a real possibility that next year the Obama White House may find itself living out the Carter Years Redux. Obama appears to be resurrecting the Carter formula of speaking out strongly, but carrying a small stick. Plans for the Pentagon are awfully reminiscent of Carter’s defense program. Likewise, the Obama’s elevation of treaty negotiations and international institutions as the primary instruments for advancing national interests also mirror Carter’s approach.
Sadly, warning signs that others will use the administration’s “soft power uber alles” strategy to undermine U.S. interests are already cropping up.
n The Russians are demanding more and more at the strategic arms negotiating table while giving their U.S. counterparts less and less.
n Iran and North Korea are running out the clock, sending diplomats into the umpteenth round of talks while their scientists toil feverishly advancing their nuclear and missile programs.
n In Latin America, socialist dictators continue to outmaneuver the White House.
Meanwhile, new al-Qaida-related or inspired plots appear to be popping every day. Three in the U.S. were thwarted last month. A Boston-based plot was uncovered just last week. Turkey discovered another network the week before. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is on the march.
And the year is not over.
The rhetoric of soft power is inspiring and ever hopeful. But unless the nation seems firmly committed to backing it with some hard muscle, those with no love of America will interpret the rhetoric as the vapid mooings of a nation in retreat.
That interpretation could make 2010 a year of living dangerously.
James Carafano is assistant director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).