In last month's issue of Foreign Policy magazine, leading analyst and Iraq War supporter Walter Russell Mead opined that President Obama's foreign policy agenda was turning into a duplicate of Jimmy Carter's.
The thesis was beyond speculative. Even by Mead's own admission, Obama's foreign policy is in its nascent stages. Right now, he writes, it "looks a little bit like that of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger." Mead even suggests that the president is trying to pursue a "Jeffersonian" worldview -- in which the U.S. is militarily formidable but unexposed to regional crises. Either way, the Carter comparison was clearly meant as an insult. After all, the piece was titled "The Carter Syndrome."
It would seem natural for Obama and his allies to find the piece somewhat insulting -- but the one raising the most stink so far is Carter himself.
The former president penned a 1,500-word letter to the editor complaining about the article's treatment of his foreign policy legacy. That's followed by a second letter to the editor from Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security adviser.
Both delve into an issue-by-issue defense of various Carter actions: whether it was relations with China, peace talks in the Middle East, a renewed emphasis on human rights in Africa, the strengthening of NATO and even the hostage crisis in Iran.
"I won't criticize or correct his cute and erroneous oversimplistic distortions of presidential biographies and history except when he refers specifically to me," Carter writes. "I resent Mead's use of such phrases as 'in the worst scenario, turn him [Obama] into a new Jimmy Carter,' 'weakness and indecision,' and 'incoherence and reversals' to describe my service. An especially aggravating error is his claiming, 'by the end of his tenure he was supporting the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, increasing the defense budget, and laying the groundwork for an expanded U.S. presence in the Middle East.' None of these were late decisions based on a tardy realization of my earlier errors and misjudgments."
All of which was not enough to placate Mead, who responded in kind to Carter's own response. Recalling that he cast his first presidential vote for Carter in 1980, he writes:
I have attended meetings at which high-ranking officials from both the Soviet Union and the Carter administration have clearly stated that Carter's support for human rights was seen from the Soviet side as a repudiation of détente and a return to Cold War hostility -- and that, especially in the beginning, Carter did not fully grasp the tension between his two goals of détente with the Soviets and the promotion of human rights. Obama faces, potentially, a similar tradeoff between the promotion of human rights and the development of stable relations with countries such as China and Iran; he is likely to find it as difficult to manage the tension between those goals as Carter once did.