James Jay Carafano: Lesson from Jimmy Carter: Weakness invites aggression

“Detente,” Ronald Reagan once quipped, “isn't that what a farmer has with his turkey — until Thanksgiving Day?'

When Reagan took over the White House he planned to make his foreign policy everything that Jimmy Carter's was not. Carter had tried accommodating America's enemies. He cut back on defense. He made humility the hallmark of American diplomacy.

Our foes responded with aggression: Iranian revolutionaries danced in the rubble of the U.S. Embassy; the Soviets sponsored armed insurgencies and invaded Afghanistan.

Later in his presidency, Carter tried to look tough. He proposed a modest increase in defense spending; pulled the United States out of the Moscow Olympics; and slapped an embargo on wheat exports to the Soviet Union. These actions hurt high jumpers and American farmers, but didn't faze our enemies. It was too little, too late.

As Reagan entered his presidency, the U.S. economy and the American spirit were low. Still, he committed to a policy of “peace through strength.” And, even before he put his plan into action, our enemies began to worry.

Yuri Andropov, the chief of the KGB — the Soviet's spy network — feared that Reagan planned to attack. “Andropov,” wrote Steven Hayward, in his “Age of Reagan”ordered the KGB to organize a special surveillance program in the United States — code-named Operation RYAN — to look for signs of preparations for an attack.”

Reagan's assertive approach to foreign policy did not spark war. It produced peace. The Kremlin discovered Reagan was not the cowboy they feared. But they respected the more muscular United States. Russia agreed to the most effective arms control treaty in history.

The benefits spread. According to the Canadian-based Human Security project, deaths from political violence worldwide (even accounting for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq) have declined continually since the end of the Cold War … until recently.

Reagan's opponents never understood the importance of peace through strength. When the Gipper went to negotiate economic strategy with House Speaker Tip O'Neil, he was told Congress would cut $35 billion in domestic spending only if Reagan pared the same amount from the Pentagon budget.

Reagan refused. Defense was not the problem, he told O'Neil. Defense was less than 30 percent of spending, down from nearly half the budget when John F. Kennedy had been president. (Today, Pentagon spending is less than one-fifth of the budget.) Keeping America safe, free, and prosperous, he concluded, doesn't start with making the nation unsafe.

Small wonder that people are saying the world looks like a rerun of the Carter years. The Obama Doctrine possesses many Carteresque attributes: a heavy reliance on treaties and international institutions; a more humble (and, often, apologetic) U.S. presence around the globe, and a diminishment of U.S. hard power.

And the Obama Doctrine has reaped pretty much the same results. When asked if he feared a U.S. military strike against his country's nuclear program, the Iranian president scoffed at the notion.

Meanwhile, after yielding to Russian complaints and canceling plans to build missile defenses against an Iranian attack, Obama signed an arms control treaty which, the Kremlin boasts, will further limit our missile defense. Yet Moscow still complains that the more limited system the Obama administration wants to field is too much. Once again, American concessions have only encouraged Moscow to be more aggressive.

Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House's commitments are laced with qualifiers that encourage our nation's friends and enemies to doubt U.S. resolve.

Put simply, if President Obama continues to pursue a Carteresque foreign policy — talking softly while whittling away at the stick — he will only put American lives and the prospects of peace at greater jeopardy.

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

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