What Would Jimmy Carter Do?

President Jimmy Carter, preparing to speak to the country after a failed attempt to rescue the hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran

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President Jimmy Carter, preparing to speak to the country after a failed attempt to rescue the hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran

With a Russian invasion, defiant autocrats, and spreading security threat, President Barack Obama could learn something from the former president. By Andrew F. Krepinevich

Russia’s invasion of Crimea has led many pundits to compare President Barack Obama’s foreign policies with those of President Jimmy Carter. The similarities are difficult to ignore, up to a point.

Both men were elected to the presidency by a war-weary nation seeking to improve relations with its enemies and place the country’s foreign policy on a higher moral plain. Carter looked to reinvigorate Washington’s relations with Moscow, going so far as to caution the American people against having an “inordinate fear” of Communists. Thirty years later Obama sent his secretary of state to deliver a “reset button” to his Russian counterpart in the hope of giving the two countries’ relationship a new and more cooperative beginning.

Carter avowed that his administration would set higher moral standards in its relations with other states. Autocrats could no longer count on Washington’s unconditional support, as the Shah of Iran, a long-standing U.S. partner, discovered when confronted with a revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Likewise, Obama proclaimed a new dawn between the United States and the Middle East and, like Carter, did not intervene while a U.S. ally, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, was toppled, leading to the rise of the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. And like Carter following the rise of Khomeini, Obama signaled to Tehran’s mullahs that he was interested in seeking opportunities for cooperation with the Islamic regime.

Yet the hopes of both presidents proved unfounded.

In response to Carter’s extended hand, the Soviets employed proxies in Africa and Central America to expand their spheres of influence. In 1979, the rise of Khomeini in Iran triggered a wave of radical Islamism. U.S. embassies in Pakistan and Iran were sacked, with the U.S. staff in Tehran seized as hostages. That December, Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan.

Similarly, Obama has found the Arab Spring to be the herald of greater regional instability, not the dawn of popular government. The violent and protracted Syrian revolution finds Washington on the sidelines. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt proved less interested in promoting democracy than enforcing its own brand of Sunni radicalism. Fortunately, they were turned out by the Egyptian military before having a chance to establish their own brand of anti-American authoritarianism. And now Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has moved his troops into Crimea, violating Ukraine’s sovereignty in an act of open aggression.

The parallels between the paths of the two presidents could end here.

What is often forgotten is that only a month after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter called for increases in defense spending of 4.6 percent per year, every year over five years. In a sense this was a modest down payment on the Reagan defense buildup that followed. Soon after, Carter established the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, a precursor to the U.S. military’s Central Command, signaling America’s determination to protect its interests in the Middle East.

It bears noting that Carter took these actions while the U.S. economy was wracked by oil shocks stemming from the Iranian revolution and suffering from “stagflation,” a combination of high unemployment and high inflation.

How will Obama proceed in the wake of growing challenges to U.S. security interests in Europe and the Middle East, to the point where America’s rivals have openly engaged in proxy warfare—in the case of Iran’s support for Assad—and outright aggression, as we are witnessing in Crimea? For that matter, how will the president address China’s expanding territorial ambitions? They now now include the three million square miles of the South China Sea and Japan’s Senkaku islands. Moreover, Beijing has shown itself increasingly willing to engage in provocative actions in support of its claims.

This past week Obama announced plans to cut the Pentagon’s budget from 3.8 percent of GDP to less than 3 percent by the decade’s end. These cuts are the product of the Balanced Budget Control Act that mandates cuts in defense and domestic discretionary spending. The president has expressed willingness to increase the defense budget modestly, but only if it is accompanied by increases in spending on his domestic priorities, tax increases or both. Yet it is difficult to see why maintaining the country’s defenses should be held hostage to other programs’ funding levels, least of all by the commander-in-chief.

Preserving defense spending at even current levels could enable us to deploy modest ground and air forces to front-line NATO states, particularly tempting targets, such as the Baltic States that were once part of the Soviet empire. These deployments could serve notice to Putin that any act of aggression on these states would directly involve the U.S. and its allies, and thus act as a powerful deterrent.

Will Putin’s success in the Crimea tempt Beijing to dispatch its troops to occupy Japan’s Senkaku Islands, precipitating a Far East crisis if not a war? Deploying small numbers of Japanese and U.S. troops on key islands would likewise serve notice that a repeat of Russia’s act of aggression will not be tolerated.

Four years after the fall of Vietnam, Carter acted to reverse the decline of U.S. power and influence. History has not been as kind this time around. We have not even departed Afghanistan while storm clouds gather in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific. President Obama might do well to ask himself: What would Jimmy Carter do?

Andrew Krepinevich is president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

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