Friday, February 06, 2009

Nostalgia for the 1970s?

Pentagon officials have revealed that the Administration has ordered a 10 percent reduction in defense spending this year. I remember a previous Democratic President who promised to cut back our military. So, in the Wall Street Journal, Arthur Herman wonders whether Obama's election will be a return to foreign policy "Carterism":
It would be a gross understatement to say that reality proved a more complex and obdurate substance than was dreamed of in Mr. Carter's philosophy. A few examples may suffice, starting with Latin and Central America--an area high on Mr. Carter's list for healing the supposed split between the developed and developing world.

One priority for Mr. Carter was giving up control of the Panama Canal--a symbol of the bad old days of homegrown Yanqui interventionism. In April 1978, he scored his first (and only) foreign-policy success when the Senate ratified the Panama Canal treaty. The agreement, it was said, would inaugurate a bright new future for the tiny Central American country and, by extension, for Latin American relations in general. Unfortunately, with the Americans gone, Panama descended into a twilight world of corruption and violence and became a hub of the international drug trade. Successive dictators skimmed the proceeds of canal traffic to entrench their power and oppress the Panamanian people. Eventually, under George Bush senior, American soldiers would have to be sent to topple Panama's last and worst dictator, Manuel Noriega, thus providing a bitterly ironic ending to the era of noninterventionism.

But Panama was in some ways a side show, if a symptomatic one. Underlying Mr. Carter's entire approach to Latin America was his new stress on human rights as a touchstone of American foreign policy. "We can no longer separate the traditional issues of war and peace," he declared at Notre Dame University in 1978, "from the new global questions of peace, justice and human rights." This was a bold statement, and on the face of it there was everything to recommend it--assuming, that is, that the yardstick of human rights was to be applied universally. But it turned out that Mr. Carter meant to apply it with extreme selectivity, and less as a yardstick than as a stick with which to beat our friends.

The argument went like this. In thrall to our Cold War mentality, we had been in the habit of reflexively backing right-wing dictators whose only virtue was that they were anticommunist and pro-U.S. In so doing, we had betrayed our own democratic principles, in full view of a shocked and disgusted world. The time had come to reverse gears. Henceforth, Mr. Carter proclaimed, governments that violated their own citizens' human rights would no longer receive American support but would instead incur our opposition. A foreign policy so constructed would, theoretically, encourage the growth of democracy in Third World countries and reduce the appeal of more radical or revolutionary ideologies.

In the event, the opposite happened. As Jeane Kirkpatrick pointed out at the time, instead of paving the way to democracy, the withdrawal of support from petty dictators in Latin America paved the way for a surrender of American interests--at the expense of our hopes for democratization. The only countries on which the U.S. could bring significant pressure to bear were those ruled by authoritarians who restricted certain freedoms while leaving others intact; by contrast, we enjoyed little or no leverage at all with totalitarian regimes that systematically destroyed all freedoms and treated us as their ideological enemy.

Thus the fallacy turned out to be not the old Cold War mentality but the new Carter human-rights policy. When we ceased supporting our bad allies, they were replaced by far worse antagonists. It had happened before in Cuba, where Batista was overthrown by Castro, and it was happening again in Nicaragua, where in the spring of 1977 the Carter administration, displeased with the corrupt, small-minded, and frequently brutal Somoza regime, cut off all aid to the Nicaraguan military in its war against the Sandinista insurgency. . .

Now Barack Obama comes into office, trailing clouds of Carterite rhetoric and Carteresque ideas about the inutility of military force, the sovereign worth of "aggressive diplomacy" (an incoherent and meaningless phrase), and the need to accommodate ourselves to a world in which we are no longer even an economic superpower, let alone an example to mankind. Of Mr. Carter himself, it may be said in mitigation that he assumed the presidency at an exceptionally bad moment, in the wake of a humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam and in an atmosphere of defeatism among many prominent figures in the political establishment and, among others, a feeling of positive revulsion toward both the ends and the means of American power. Mr. Carter was wrong to think that the way forward was to adopt, wholesale, the arguments of the anti-Vietnam War movement--wrong in theory, and dangerously wrong in practice. Still, one can understand why, in the circumstances, someone of his bent might have come to the position he did.

But today? When Iraq, the most egregious example of Mr. Bush's supposedly reckless zeal to go it alone, is turning out to be a success, reaffirming the rightness of America's cause and the soundness of the postwar vision? Why adopt, today, the arguments and proposals of those who still pretend that Iraq has been nothing but a sordid failure, or who hold that the fact of its success proves nothing whatsoever about who we are and what we stand for?
See also David Pryce-Jones on National Review.

No comments: