Loved, not feared: Obama and the curse of Carter

The current issue of Foreign Policy magazine has a cover story comparing Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter.

The current issue of Foreign Policy magazine has a cover story comparing Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter. The implication is that Mr Obama, if he performs unwisely, may go the dismal way of his predecessor. While many applaud the US president as someone who has persuaded the world to like America again, the real question this mid-term election year is whether Americans like Mr Obama's America as it is; and on that, the jury is still out.

@body arnhem:Americans are, understandably, addicted to optimism. Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980 in large part because he persuaded the electorate that he could bring them a new morning, after years of economic decline and foreign policy calamities. The perception was at times harsh, but Mr Carter could never shake off the feeling that he was inept, and that the US looked inept in consequence.

Mr Obama is not inept, but the hopes that greeted the beginning of his term have been displaced by a jarring dose of realism. Economic recovery has been more sluggish than expected, with unemployment still in the double digits, despite growth in manufacturing. The president's health plan remains divisive, adding to a sense of doubt among voters, weighed unfairly against the incumbent, about the debt burden inherited from the financial recovery package. And even where a consensus exists, namely on limiting carbon-dioxide emissions, Mr Obama could do no better than emerge from the wreckage of Copenhagen looking like the villain.

As for his foreign policy, everyone agrees that Mr Obama is more popular than his predecessor, George W Bush, but in large part that is because most people misread the second Bush term. The current president had relatively little room to overhaul the Bush White House's alleged unilateralism, disregard for international law, and scorn for international institutions and compromise, because Mr Bush was himself a faithful multilateralist between 2005 and 2009, manoeuvred within the confines of international law, and compromised with most of the international partners he had so angered before.

There is another reason why Mr Obama has failed to convince. His approach to foreign affairs seems bound by no clear unifying theme. The president set ambitious goals before taking office, but otherwise doesn't stand for much - indeed often exhibits the intellectual's innate mistrust of clearly defined opinion. He is pulling out of Iraq, as promised, though this might play to the advantage of Iran, America's main rival in the Gulf. His effort to curb Iran's nuclear programme and facilitate Palestinian-Israeli peace have yet to show results. And Mr Obama has escalated US involvement in an Afghan war that even he appears unconvinced by.

The repercussions of Middle Eastern issues are also handicapping the president at home. For example, a recent poll suggested that two-thirds of Americans felt that Mr Obama's policies on terrorism either had no effect on their safety or made them feel less safe. The Democrats have traditionally been viewed as weak on national security, which is why Mr Obama reacted so virulently against the intelligence agencies after they allowed the failed Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to fly to the US unhindered.

To make matters worse, among those defending Mr Obama the most loudly are relics from the Carter years. They include the former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who argues that the president has "comprehensibly reconceptualised" US foreign policy and shown "a genuine sense of strategic direction". If that is so, few have noticed. A pointed critique of the administration has come from the academic Fouad Ajami, an intellectual champion of the Bush years. His disapproval was directed more at the mood governing US foreign relations. Mr Obama presides over an administration isolating itself globally, Mr Ajami wrote, one imprisoned by its own declared limitations, without the ethos of a great power and offering no "overriding commitment to the defence of American primacy in the world".

Mr Ajami was not wrong. Powerful nations retain their power partly through self-confidence. Yet Mr Obama, despite his high rhetoric, has often drawn attention to American shortcomings. For example, the US is preparing only targeted sanctions against Iranian officials as punishment for Tehran's intransigence on its nuclear project. This is defensible in light of domestic Iranian tensions, but it is hardly a compelling deterrent given Washington's own description of what is at stake. It is, rather, a confirmation that America can do no more.

After declaring Palestinian-Israeli peace a Middle Eastern priority, the Obama administration is now quietly admitting just how difficult the task is. The US is putting together new proposals, but they will almost certainly go nowhere. The same can be said of American behaviour in Iraq. Americans welcome the withdrawal, but withdrawals by their very nature imply setbacks, not strength, reinforcing the sense that Mr Obama is better at sounding the retreat than seizing the initiative.

But there is Afghanistan, some might reply. Perhaps, but what kind of self-assurance did the US president inspire in his new strategy there? Even as he announced the deployment of more troops, he set a deadline for the start of their pullout. And Mr Obama sounded positively disconsolate when remarking: "In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbours and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can't simply afford to ignore the price of these wars."

It is too early to write off Mr Obama as a new Jimmy Carter. However, he has not resolved a conundrum that preoccupied Machiavelli: whether it is best for a leader to be loved or feared. Mr Obama is more loved than Mr Bush, but he is not feared. That may come back to haunt him. Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star in Lebanon

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