Obama’s Middle East? It’s déjà vu all over again

The President’s policy on the Arab Spring echoes Jimmy Carter’s reluctance to use force during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80

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 Nobel peacenik prize winner: Barack Obama

Among critics of Barack Obama, comparisons with Jimmy Carter became ever more frequent as his presidency progressed. After all, both presided over stagnant economies, created large new federal departments, bailed out auto companies, sought to reform healthcare, and put pressure on Israel.

Both presidents also exhibited similar accomplishments and interests: one, a peanut farmer and one-term governor who emerged from obscurity to beat the incumbent (but unelected) Republican president, Gerald Ford; the other, a community organiser and one-term senator who also came from nowhere to overcome Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment in a bruising primary and go on to win the contest to succeed President George W. Bush.

Obama and Carter are both zealous advocates of nuclear arms reduction. The Carter administration was convinced that the Soviet Union had “similar dreams and aspirations” to the US. Carter and his Soviet counterpart Leonid Brezhnev pledged to limit nuclear forces under the Salt II agreement. The less optimistic Senate refused to ratify the agreement, however. A few months later, the peace-pursuing Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

Barack Obama, too, has long been concerned with nuclear stockpiles. In his senior year at Columbia University he wrote a paper on the issue. As president, he pledged to advance the cause of eradicating nuclear weapons, convened a conference in 2010 to advance the matter, and consistently referred to this hope in his speeches. The dissonance between his determination to rid the world of existing nuclear weapons and his unwillingness to take stronger measures to prevent Iran from developing new ones is quite remarkable.

Both presidents have also received dubious Nobel Peace Prizes. Neither has impressive accomplishments to point to: the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed in spite, not because, of Carter; and Obama had been in the White House for less than two weeks before he was nominated for the prize. Recognising this dearth of achievement, the Nobel committee could only present both awards on the basis of effort.

For all their efforts, however, both presidents have scored poorly in their policies toward the Middle East, and for the same reasons. So argues the American-Israeli journalist Ruthie Blum in her short and engrossing book, To Hell in a Handbasket (RVP Press), which compares the American embassy hostage crisis in Iran under Carter with the so-called Arab Spring under Obama. The book provides abundant material from which to draw parallels in the Middle East diplomacy of these two Democratic presidents.

The American embassy in Tehran was attacked and its staff taken hostage in November 1979 in the midst of the Iranian revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power and transformed the country into the Islamic Republic that it remains to this day. The Shah had been toppled and was travelling the world seeking refuge and, more pressingly, medical treatment for his cancer. Carter was reluctant to permit the deposed monarch entry, but after months of pressure from advisers and others, the Shah’s request was granted. The protests around the embassy, as well as the attack on it, were ostensibly triggered by this consent for the Shah, who was wanted in Iran for trial.

With misplaced confidence in the Ayatollah, the Carter administration pursued futile diplomacy for months, deploying a rescue team only in the spring of 1980. After the mission was bungled, the crisis continued through that year’s election season and undoubtedly contributed to Reagan’s victory.

There are several instructive parallels between this episode and the Arab Spring, which has occurred during President Obama’s term in office and has seen several Middle Eastern autocrats, including US allies, challenged and even toppled by their countrymen.

The first parallel pertains to background attitudes. Both presidents projected weakness and sent the wrong messages. Their aspirations to rid the world (including America) of nuclear weapons, the pressure they both put on Israel, and their shared preference for humanitarianism over force, signalled a diminished confidence in the virtues of American and allied strength.

Carter’s attitude was noted by the counter-terrorism force charged with training to rescue the hostages in Iran, known as Delta Force. The unit had not expected to be deployed by an administration so repulsed by the notion of force. As one of its members pointed out, Carter had said at the outset of the crisis, “We will do nothing to jeopardise the lives of those hostages.” What he should have said was, “All options are on the table.” The choice of words reflected the administration’s attitude: several months into the crisis, as the use of force became unavoidable, the pacifistic secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, felt obliged to resign.

His deputy, Warren Christopher, responded with incredulity to a briefing by Delta Force’s commander, who explained that the unit planned to scale the embassy walls and “take out the guards”.

“Will you shoot them in the shoulder, or what?” Christopher asked. “No sir,” replied the commander, “we’re going to shoot them each twice, right between the eyes.” Christopher’s response: “You mean you’re really going to shoot to kill? You really are?”

This attitude was also evident in policy, particularly in regard to the CIA, the bogeyman of the Cold War and, as far as the administration was concerned, the cause of global anti-Americanism. Hoping to improve America’s image, Carter’s CIA director fired 800 operatives. Naturally, this adversely affected the agency’s ability to operate in Iran before and during the crisis. For instance, Delta Force would need ground transportation in Iran once the rescue operation was under way. But since the CIA had been gutted, the unit had to bring an agent in Germany out of retirement to travel to Iran to buy trucks.

Because the Carter administration repeatedly demonstrated an abhorrence for force and preference for diplomacy, dangerous precedents were set. When the American embassy in Iran was attacked in November 1979, it was not for the first time: it had already been targeted in February as the revolution got under way. Since Carter had relied on the interim administration which had replaced the Shah to restore safety to the embassy in February, the hostage-takers rightly assumed he would do the same thing again. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s current president, was among the hostage-takers in 1979 and had been involved in the plan from its inception. He initially advocated taking the “Marxist anti-God” Soviet embassy rather than the American embassy: he was outvoted not only because the hostage-takers viewed the US as the more satanic of the two superpowers, but also because they understood that the Soviets would treat any intrusion as an act of war and kill the attackers. The Americans, on the other hand, would presumably rely on the Iranian government — by this point sympathetic to the hostage-takers-to deal with the problem, as they had done before. The hostage-takers were vindicated in their assumptions.    Khomeini observed: “There’s not a damned thing Carter can do about it.”

The Obama administration has also sent the wrong messages. Like Carter, Obama set out to be different to his predecessors. He  set his sights on American military spending, which he planned to cut by half a trillion dollars over the next decade. Combined with another $500 billion of automatic cuts, the trillion-dollar reduction in defence spending deflates America’s global ambitions and, as with Carter’s CIA cuts, also its capacity.

Throughout the Arab Spring, just like Carter during the hostage crisis, Obama has reiterated his and America’s respect for Muslims’ beliefs instead of focusing on the strategic threats posed by the rise of Islamism. And just as Carter advocated a largely passive and reactive approach to the hostage crisis, so has the Obama administration toward the Middle East. One of Iran’s leading strategists recently noted the “current passive climate in the US”. This passivity also underlies Obama’s policy of “leading from behind” on the Arab Spring. For example, Obama finally took a position on the revolution in Tunisia on the day that the country’s president was ousted.

The second critical parallel between the Iranian hostage crisis and the Arab Spring is a failure to understand what the revolutions are about. Despite protestations from such figures as the renowned Orientalist Bernard Lewis, Carter wanted to trust Khomeini, and failed to understand what the hostages eventually did: that tough talk, not appeasement, was more helpful in resolving the crisis. Above all, the Carter administration stubbornly believed that it was the Shah’s presence in the US that was angering the Iranians, and hoped that his death in mid-1980 would bring an end to the crisis. It didn’t. The hostages remained in captivity.

Obama has demonstrated comparable ignorance and wishful thinking. His administration has failed to recognise that terms such as “democracy” and “oppression” mean very different things to the Arab protesters who utilise them. As the National Review‘s Andrew McCarthy has pointed out, the demonstrations are against the secular regimes’ repression not of the people, but of Islam. And yet, even as the Arab Spring began to look, as Blum puts it, more like the Iranian revolution than the American one, National Intelligence director James Clapper still considered the Muslim Brotherhood to be “largely secular” and, hoping to cooperate with the group, American diplomats, as well as Senator John Kerry, met Brotherhood officials. Carter himself travelled to revolutionary Egypt and welcomed the news that Obama would recognise the Brotherhood’s impending electoral victory, in contrast to President Bush’s refusal to recognise Hamas when it won the 2006 Palestinian Authority election.

During the recent demonstrations, ostensibly provoked by a video of a film on the Prophet Muhammad posted on the internet, the Obama administration went as far as to spend $70,000 on advertisements in Pakistan to repudiate the film. But just as the American embassy in Iran had been attacked on the 15th anniversary of the exile of Ayatollah Khomeini by the Shah, so the recent attack on the American embassy in Egypt and the terrorist attack on the consulate in Libya fell on the anniversary of 9/11. The video was merely the pretext, and apologies are as counter-productive now as they were in the past.

As country after country falls to Islamism, the third instructive parallel between the two presidents’ Middle East policy becomes evident: consequences. Before the American embassy was attacked in Iran, the Israeli embassy was sacked and its flag replaced with the PLO banner. The Israeli diplomats managed to escape, hiding out for a week before leaving the country. During that time, the Israeli military attaché was approached by his American counterpart and the ambassador, who offered him sanctuary in their embassy. Amazed by their naivety, he warned them that they were next — to no avail. The embassy of the Great Satan was targeted four days after that of the Little Satan. 

The attack on the American embassy in Cairo was preceded by an attack on Israel’s embassy a year earlier. Since the fall of Mubarak, Egypt and Iran have renewed the diplomatic ties which had been cut by Iran when Anwar Sadat signed Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. There is increased talk in Egypt about officially revising the treaty.

Back in 1980, a joke went around: “What’s flat as a pancake and glows in the dark? Iran, after Reagan becomes president.” The election, which Reagan won, fell on the first anniversary of the hostage-taking, with the diplomats still in captivity. They were released on the day of the new president’s inauguration. In the 2012 election, Iranian Islamism was still a primary issue, but now joined by Arab Islamism spreading across the Middle East.