Monday, May 26, 2008

Is Obama the new Reagan?

It’s like some sort of flashback, circa 1980.

Gas prices through the roof. Iran thumbing its nose. Americans deeply unhappy about the direction the country has taken. A bumbling president whose foreign-policy blunders diminished the United States’ capacity to shape the world in accordance with its national interest.

And a presidential candidate who is the polar opposite of the man in the White House, promising to change everything.

Back then, political cartoonists drew Jimmy Carter as a little boy whose feet didn’t touch the ground sitting in a big chair in the Oval Office, smiling insecurely, overwhelmed by the task of being president of a superpower.

There were two superpowers in those days. Pundits fretted that the Soviet Union was growing stronger while the United States became weaker — a perception reinforced by 444 humiliating days of Iran hostage crisis. Time magazine declared nothing less was in order than a “self-examination in which the U.S. weighs its role as a superpower and balances the inherent heavy burdens against the benefits.”

In other words: let us think about drawing back and leave a triumphant Soviet Union as the sole superpower. American confidence, at rock bottom.

On the 444th day, however, Ronald Reagan took office. Minutes later, the hostages were freed. And just about a decade later, the Soviet Union was gone, leaving the United States unchallenged (for a while, anyway) as the globe’s only hyperpower.

The extent to which Reagan’s assertive foreign policy should get credit for bringing about the demise of totalitarian Soviet Marxism has been debated since. But there should be no question that the Reagan presidency utterly changed the national mood from Carter’s “malaise” to the self-assured “shining city on a hill,” and restored muscle to a foreign policy paralyzed by indecisiveness. The United States under Reagan was a far more powerful actor on the global stage, its citizens far more confident in the future of their country, than under Carter.

Today, the country needs a sea-change every bit as transformative — but not in the same direction.

Put aside the orthodoxies of dove versus hawk that have dominated U.S. foreign policy since the beginning of the Cold War, and take an unbiased look at the geopolitical position of the United States five years after the invasion of Iraq, almost seven years since the 9/11 attacks, and just about eight years into the Bush presidency. What you see without ideological blinders is an America every bit as incapable of having its way in the world as the America of Jimmy Carter.

Last week, the Saudis just said “no” to Bush’s request to open the oil spigot. The Iranians continue to speed toward nukes, unchecked and unafraid of an America with its hands full in the unnecessary war in Iraq. Europe, which thinks we are nuts, rebuffed Bush’s proposal to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, “a remarkable rejection of American policy in an alliance normally dominated by Washington,” as the New York Times put it. There is also the absence of a policy to deal with the rising power of China, or of a comprehensive regional approach to build alliances in Latin America willing to stand up to the Havana-Caracas axis.

The country’s international position is as weak in 1980 — but for entirely different reasons. The transition from Carter to Reagan was marked by a shift from vacillation to resolve. That was indispensable to re-establish American preeminence. But now, we are on the verge of losing that preeminence because of an excess of resolve — a unilateral, damn-what-anybody-thinks resolve born out of jingoistic arrogance, executive incompetence and cultural ignorance about the world beyond the borders of the United States.

That is not all. This administration has wiretapped citizens without a court’s permission, proclaims a right to torture by any other name and, as a harrowing story last week in the Washington Post put it, “injected hundreds of foreigners it has deported with dangerous psychotropic drugs against their will to keep them sedated during the trip back to their home country.”

Somebody has got to put a stop to this, the way that Reagan stopped the slide under Jimmy Carter. John McCain can’t do it — a watershed year like this one requires a comprehensively transformed leadership.

But Barack Obama has yet to succeed in assuring the American public that he can be not just smart, but also strong. Eagerness to meet “unconditionally” with the world’s worst dictators is no improvement over the recklessness of the Bush years.

Obama needs to show that he is no Jimmy Carter, but a liberal version of Ronald Reagan.

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