Do you ever get the feeling that you’re really living in a television program? For 2011 America, the rerun we are collectively forced to act in is That ’70s Show.
Supermarket prices have skyrocketed. An energy crisis looms. The economy sputters along. Back then, the president imposed price controls on oil as a misguided means to keep consumer costs under control; now, the president is poised to implement price controls as part of his health care plan. People talk openly of an America in decline.
We may have traded in CB radios for Facebook, streaking for celebrity sex videos, Betamax for Blueray, and eight-tracks for MP3s. But the similarities between our times and those times are uncanny.
“I believe we can have a foreign policy that is democratic, that is based on fundamental values, and that uses power and influence, which we have, for humane purposes,” Jimmy Carter announced at Notre Dame’s 1977 commencement ceremonies. The 39th president committed America to regarding “human rights as a fundamental tenet of our foreign policy.”
“Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security,” Barack Obama explained in his recent televised address on the Libyan intervention. He continued that America, by working alongside allies, should “see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.”
One hears the echoes of Carter not only in the call for a foreign policy occasionally divorced from national interest and tethered to human rights. The echoes reverberate loudest in the manner foreign policy is carried out in the Middle East. The Carter administration in 1979, and the Obama administration in 2011, cheered on the fall of a garden-variety strongman as the dawn of something better.
The Shah of Iran, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, was a U.S. ally in an unfriendly region. Both were sick old men who had ruled their countries for more than a generation. Mubarak stood by an unpopular peace treaty with Israel while the Shah supplied the Jewish state with oil. Both men stood athwart religious fanatics threatening their regimes. Both sometimes did so through unsavory means.
By dwelling on the ways in which the Shah and Mubarak were like other Middle Eastern rulers, and overlooking the ways in which they differed from neighboring strongmen, Presidents Carter and Obama undercut longtime U.S. allies. The local currents were probably too strong for distant presidents to hold back regional change in 1979 and 2011. But transfixing on the human rights abuses of the dictator in power left them blind to the human rights abuses that might follow their departures.
When events went sour in Iran and Egypt, President Carter and President Obama reversed course on support for dictators who had supported the United States.
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