The winter of 1979 was a difficult one for President Jimmy Carter.
By Christmas day, Islamic militants in Iran had been holding 52 U.S. embassy staffers and citizens hostage for about seven weeks. Two days later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with thousands of troops and assassinated the country’s president to replace him with a pro-Moscow leader. The act of Soviet belligerence undermined what Carter administration officials viewed as their signature achievement—the SALT II treaty placing limits on U.S. and Soviet strategic nuclear weapons systems.
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"It was a sad time," Carter wrote in his memoirs Keeping Faith. The Christmas tree south of the White House was dark that year to symbolize mourning for the hostages in Tehran.
The ensuing months would only prove more challenging for Carter as he faced a reelection battle in 1980. He broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in April and imposed additional sanctions after the Ayatollah Khomeini refused to transfer the hostages from the militants to the government. A failed mission to rescue the captives later that month resulted in eight deaths after a U.S. helicopter crashed into a C-130 transport plane.
"The public was more supportive of me than it had been a few months ago, but becoming more restive with each passing week because of our seeming impotence in dealing with international crises," Carter wrote.
President Barack Obama finds himself in an comparable situation on the eve of the 2014 midterm elections. A torrent of foreign crises parallel to the ones Carter faced plague his administration: a revanchist Russia has invaded Ukraine and is fomenting instability, critics warn that Iran is again equivocating in nuclear talks with the West, and the Islamic State (IS) is on a rampage in Iraq and Syria.
Only 36 percent of Americans on average approve of the president’s handling of foreign policy issues, according to Real Clear Politics.
David Adesnik, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), said in an email that the "rapid-fire surprises of 2014," much like the chaotic events of 1979, "demonstrated that the world was a far more dangerous place than the president wanted to believe."
"There was a similar sense at the time [in 1979] that chaos was breaking out on multiple fronts that had once been secure," he said.
Obama and his advisers in many ways share the same view of the world that was held by the Carter administration. However, Carter was profoundly affected by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, according to accounts of his presidency, and pursued a more aggressive defense buildup by the end of his lone term. Obama has initiated a limited air war against the Islamic State, but has so far shown no indication of a dramatic change in his foreign policy of restraint.
A ‘complex foreign policy’
In his memoirs Power and Principle, Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote that the "collapse of the existing, largely Europe-centered world order" after two world wars had created a "turbulent and complex world" by the 1980s. The new global environment required the United States to "temper as much as possible old ideological and power conflicts" through mechanisms such as arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. What was needed was a "complex foreign policy."
Brzezinski supported the centralization of White House decision-making in the National Security Council (NSC) that included himself, partly for selfish reasons but also because he thought it was natural for foreign policy to be developed among the president’s closest aides. This in part encouraged Carter to engross "himself excessively in too many secondary matters" and actively oppose Brzezinski’s efforts "to promote genuine delegation of authority," he would later conclude.
Obama and his advisers have adopted a similar position and management style on international issues. The president told NPR in May that the current world order is "changing very rapidly" but not in a manner that will always require military prowess to maintain American leadership. In a January interview with the New Yorker, he said he is "comfortable with complexity."
Still, Obama claimed at an August fundraiser that "things are much less dangerous now [in the Middle East] than they were 20 years ago, 25 years ago or 30 years ago" despite the threat of IS and a potential nuclear arms race. Adesnik said that while Obama has evolved from withdrawing troops from Iraq in 2011 to launching a new military operation there, his ultimate analysis of the region downplays the threats.
"There is a natural tendency to assume that the problems of today are unprecedented, but this time the conventional wisdom is right," he said. "I wouldn’t want to go back to the Cold War, but a return to 1994 would be very welcome."
Obama, like Carter, has been criticized for an insular decision-making process that only includes his trusted advisers and keeps other cabinet secretaries at arms length. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), a former aide to President Richard Nixon, told the Washington Post last week that by not delegating problems to subordinates, Obama risks lurching from crisis to crisis without tackling them all comprehensively.
"You get the impression that everything is run out of the White House, and that’s an understandable urge, to trust only the people 10 to 15 feet away from you," Alexander said. "But if you want to be successful, you have to delegate."
Peace as a ‘process’
Carter’s Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, a dovish adviser who frequently clashed with Brzezinski, was fond of President John F. Kennedy’s remark that "peace is a process, a way of solving problems." Vance became one of the foremost proponents of détente with the Soviets during the Carter administration, but later resigned over disagreements on the Iranian hostage crisis.
The Soviet incursion in Afghanistan doomed the chances of Senate ratification of the SALT II treaty, which was signed in June 1979 in Vienna. Republican hawks and anti-Communist Democrats like Sen. Scoop Jackson had previously blasted the deal, and criticism only intensified after reports in August 1979 of an actual Soviet combat brigade in Cuba.
Brzezinski later concluded that "our almost fetishistic preoccupation with obtaining a SALT agreement made the Soviets feel that they could press us for concessions while one-sidedly exploiting détente elsewhere."
Obama now faces a similar bipartisan barrage of criticism for his attempt to achieve détente with Iran through a deal on its nuclear program, potentially by bypassing Congress. Iran has continued funneling support to American adversaries, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hamas, throughout the negotiations—also taking place in Vienna with a deadline in late November. An agreement could allow Iran to retain some form of uranium enrichment capacity despite previous United Nations resolutions that condemned the practice.
Critics warn that if the negotiations are extended further, the administration risks adopting a policy of talks just for the sake of talks as Iran clandestinely develops a nuclear capability.
"Process should never be a substitute for results, especially if the process becomes a distraction to achieving those results," Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Jerusalem Post in July.
A change of course?
"Reliance on force was not instinctive with" Carter, Brzezinski wrote. However, Carter "came to recognize more and more the central role of American power in the preservation of peace."
After the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Carter boosted the defense budget, agreed to deploy deterrent missile systems in Europe, and pledged to use military force if adversaries attempted to threaten U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf region—the so-called "Carter Doctrine."
Obama has so far not called for a comparable rearmament program as the fight against IS strains the Pentagon’s budget and draws criticism for being too restrained. Carter himself said earlier this month that the Obama administration "waited too long" to address the metastasizing threat of the Islamic State.
Adesnik noted that Obama continues to say "American military superiority has never been greater" despite about $1 trillion in potential defense cuts that could result from sequestration.
"In his last couple of years, Jimmy Carter began to increase the defense budget," he said. "I don’t expect Obama to take that course, but if the Republicans take the Senate, they can work with pro-defense Democrats to put the issue on Obama’s desk. Then we might see whether the president is prepared to change."