“Carterization” has a specific meaning in American politics. In 1980, Ronald Reagan delivered an August speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Chicago, just as he was starting his campaign to unseat Jimmy Carter, trapped then in the Iranian hostage crisis.
“The response from the administration in Washington” to foreign threats, said Reagan, “has been one of weakness, inconsistency, vacillation and bluff.”
“Our allies are losing confidence in us, and our adversaries no longer respect us,” he said. Our partners “are confused by the lack of a coherent, principled policy from the Carter administration.”
The characterization stuck, helped by Mr. Carter’s foreign adventures after his presidency. And in truth, Mr. Carter’s team included sterner ballast in Defense Secretary Harold Brown and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Nothing similar exists today in the Obama administration.
The consequences of Mr. Obama’s Carterization overseas are coming so fast it’s hard to keep track. Ukraine, though important, is the tip of the iceberg. Here’s what else happened in the week Mr. Putin captured Crimea.
-Israel on Wednesday intercepted in the Red Sea an Iranian shipment to Gaza of dozens of Syrian-made surface-to-surface rockets. These are our new Iranian negotiating partners.
-North Korea last Thursday test-fired four short-range ballistic missiles and another this Monday. Then on Tuesday it deployed a new multiple-rocket launcher that fired four missiles with enough range to hit American and South Korean military bases near Seoul.
-In Moscow last Wednesday,Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia plans to use military bases in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua for its navy and to refuel strategic bombers.
-Three months ago, Secretary Kerry ostentatiously announced in a Washington speech, “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” Naturally the Russians took this as a green light to return to one of the Soviet Union’s favorite playpens. The next day, a Russian spy ship, the Viktor Leonov SSV-175, slipped unannounced into Havana Harbor.
-Then this Wednesday, a news bulletin: “China announces 12.2% increase in military budget.” That boost comes within 24 hours of the Obama budget proposing a decline in U.S. defense spending.
This is all in one week!
Ah, one more thing happened. With Ukraine, in Vladimir Putin’s word “stabilized,” Mr. Obama went to Connecticut to campaign for an increase in the federal minimum wage and from there to Boston for a Democratic fundraiser. What, me worry?
Our allies have noticed. In December, Saudi Arabia separated itself from a decades-long alliance with the U.S. to arm the Syrian opposition because the Obama administration would not. That same month Vice President Joe Biden made a trip to Asia to reassure our allies there that the U.S. “pivot” to the Pacific is real. In February Secretary Kerry went to Asia to say it all again. This is unprecedented. Until now.
Democrats spent years trying to dig out from under the Carter foreign policy image and the blame-America-first Vietnam Syndrome. Because of the Obama determination to lead from behind—which is modern Democratic foreign-policy doctrine, not just one man’s whim—they are politically vulnerable again on handling the world.
But Hillary Clinton, who has managed never to articulate anything resembling a strategic vision, may get lucky. Because opinion polls say Americans have foreign-commitment fatigue (the actual number in the oft-cited Pew poll is 52%), Republicans have gone into a defensive crouch over the U.S.’s world role. Every prominent Republican commenting on Ukraine felt obliged to disavow military action. That disavowal is dangerous. Any Republican thinking of being a successful U.S. president should read that Chicago speech.
A realistic hope for peace, Reagan said, is possible only if the U.S. maintains “the vital margin of safety.” The margin of safety wasn’t about public threats of war. It is about the marginal advantage gained when an adversary negotiating with a strong U.S. believed we might act militarily. If friends and foes conclude no one in the U.S. believes this in 2014, the margin of safety is gone.