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Published: 2/28/2010

Is Barack Obama becoming Carter-esque?

A CONFLICT has broken out in American foreign-affairs circles, with angry charges about U.S. policy toward Russia and serious questions about the wisdom of initiating armed conflict with Iran. The fight is a third of a century old, and one of the principal combatants is the unlikely figure of Jimmy Carter.

Fights about the prudence of foreign-policy initiatives are common in graduate-school seminars, the stakes seldom greater than whether a doctoral dissertation should be rewritten. But this is a contretemps with consequence, and not only because of Mr. Carter's insistence that his record not be besmirched.

In warning that Barack Obama's foreign policy reflects themes from the Carter administration, the scholar Walter Russell Mead, who teaches at Yale and is the Henry A. Kissinger Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, has initiated an important debate about the President's perspectives and priorities.

He asks whether Mr. Obama is too eager to produce "a quiet world" so as to focus the United States on domestic reform - "and to create conditions that would allow him to dismantle some of the national-security state inherited from the Cold War and given new life and vigor after 9/11."

Mr. Mead questions whether the President wishes too fervently for "an orderly world in which burdens are shared." He wonders whether the President wants to reduce the power and profile of American military might.

All these Mr. Mead identifies as characteristics of the Carter years, or at least the early Carter years. And in titling his article in the journal Foreign Policy "The Carter Syndrome," he has opened old wounds from the late 1970s, rekindled old debates, and prompted the 39th president to insert himself anew in the public debate.

This is an unusual phenomenon. Much of past foreign policy is regarded as settled by the public, if not always by scholars in the history departments of universities.

Few Americans today question the wisdom of the Revolutionary War, the two world wars of the 20th century, or even the Korean War, which was the subject of an important 2007 book by David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter, that might have opened a new conversation about the conflict but didn't.

Debate about the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War seldom spills beyond the classroom. Only the Vietnam war and the second Iraq War are surefire sparks of contention in coffee shops and around dinner tables from coast to coast and among people who don't happen to be studying for the history midterm.

That's what makes this new debate about the Carter years so interesting. The word "Carterism" is still used with opprobrium, even though the former president is regarded among the finest ex-presidents in our history. For his post-presidential work, Mr. Carter holds the Nobel Peace Prize, and his election-monitoring and peacekeeping activities on almost every continent are broadly celebrated.

Mr. Mead believes Mr. Carter as president was one part Jeffersonian (wary of overseas engagement and emphasizing domestic reform) and one part Wilsonian (moved by human rights and possessed of an evangelism for democratic values abroad) - a profile he worries is shared by Mr. Obama. He says Mr. Obama "doesn't just love the United States for what it is," but wants to push the nation "farther down the road toward the still-distant goal of fulfilling its mission and destiny." He offers this warning:

"The contradiction between the sober and limited realism of the Jeffersonian worldview and the expansive, transformative Wilsonian agenda is likely to haunt this administration as it haunted Carter's …''

Mr. Carter has objected to Mr. Mead's use of the phrases "weakness and indecision" and "incoherence and reversals," and in a lengthy letter to Foreign Policy defended his record. His defense was buttressed by a separate letter from Zbigniew Brzezinski, Mr. Carter's national security adviser, who set out the Carter administration's accomplishments, ranging from the Panama Canal treaty to the Camp David summit.

Mr. Carter's letter is most intriguing. The president who said the country had an "inordinate fear of communism" now enlists the Cold War superpower rivalry to support his view of his White House years.

"It should be remembered," Mr. Carter argues, "that I served as president during the latter years of the Cold War, when mutual assured destruction from a nuclear exchange was an overriding factor in our dealings with the Soviet Union."

In the years following the election of George W. Bush, allies of former President Bill Clinton liked to taunt Clinton critics by asking: What exactly about eight years of peace and prosperity did you find objectionable? In his dispute with Mr. Mead, Mr. Carter is employing half of the same argument (the economy was a wreck in the Carter years):

"Although it is true that we did not become involved in military combat during my presidency, I do not consider this a sign of weakness or reason for apology. While maintaining the peace, for ourselves and many others, we greatly expanded our global influence and also protected the security, strength, ideals and integrity of the United States."

Historians may fight about the legacy of the Carter era, but despite the many accomplishments Messrs. Carter and Brzezinski set out, most of those who study the years 1977-1981 see them as an unhappy interregnum between the Republican years of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and the next GOP era of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

James Polk may be the exception to the rule - a rule well-known to John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, and Ford - that one-term presidents seldom reach the top ranks of American presidents.

This is another reason the debate over the Mead article may be of more than passing importance.

If he is right that, in reference to Mr. Obama, "the conflicting impulses influencing how this young leader thinks about the world threaten to tear his presidency apart - and, in the worst scenario, turn him into a new Jimmy Carter," then Mr. Obama is in danger of being a one-term president, and in history no more than a symbol of American possibility.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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