Forty-one years ago next month, the Boston Globe editorial page infamously allowed a joke headline for an editorial about a speech by President Jimmy Carter to slip through to the newspaper’s official print run. Some 161,000 copies of Beantown’s liberal newspaper giant sported the title “Mush from the Wimp” above a typically silly Globe exhortation to readers to follow the instructions of the nation’s clueless chief executive and “impose upon themselves the kind of economic self-discipline that President Carter urged …”
In 2021, mush has made a comeback in presidential rhetoric.
What’s more, to quote President Barack Obama as he taunted 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s focus on Russia, “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
According to President Joe Biden in what was touted as the first major foreign policy address of his presidency on Thursday, America is faced with a “new moment of advancing authoritarianism,” namely Communist China and “the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.”
Apparently, the reason we give the Pentagon $700 billion every year is to defend against the grave threat of Russian trolls setting up phony Facebook accounts to mislead American voters.
And how is the Arsenal of Democracy going to fight this mortal threat? Diplomacy! “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again,” the president assured us. The “accelerating global challenges, from the pandemic to the climate crisis to nuclear proliferation … will only to be solved by nations working together and in common. We can’t do it alone,” the new president said barely two weeks into his administration.
How far we’ve gone from the 9/11 wake-up call. This major foreign policy speech did not once even mention the still-alive-and-well threat to Americans of Islamic terrorism – just days after Pakistan released the jihadist murderers of beheaded Wall Street Journal Southeast Asia bureau chief Daniel Pearl. The president did not once mention al-Qaida or ISIS, but he did boast “overturning the hateful, discriminatory Muslim ban” and “the ban on transgender individuals serving in our military.” We heard nothing of the nightmare of the leading terrorist state in the world, Iran, building nuclear weapons, but we were told that he would be “ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen” and that he has extended “the New START Treaty for five years” with Russia in the name of “safeguarding nuclear stability.”
What does this remind us of? Security “comes through the strength of our alliances,” we were once told by another president. “Security can also be enhanced by agreements with potential adversaries which reduce the threat of nuclear disaster while maintaining our own relative strategic capability … we are negotiating with quiet confidence, without haste, with careful determination, to ease the tensions between us and to ensure greater stability and security.”
You guessed it. That was Jimmy Carter, delivering his 1978 State of the Union speech to Congress.
The Danger of Diplomacy Unbacked By Power
All that diplo-speak, “easing tensions” and “increasing stability,” preceded an Islamist revolution in Iran (which the Carter administration helped bring on, Carter’s UN Ambassador Andrew Young calling the Ayatollah Khomeini “a saint”); 52 Americans held hostage in Tehran for 444 days; a deliberate destabilization policy in Central America in which the United States itself actually brought the Soviet-backed Sandinistas into power in Nicaragua; finally climaxing with the Christmas Eve 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, six months after Carter kissed Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev’s cheeks in Vienna and assured Congress that “President Brezhnev and I developed a better sense of each other as leaders and as men.” (Well, no question Brezhnev gained a sense of Carter as leader.)
One of the great hazards of government by the people is that the people have short memories. Joe Biden told us Thursday that “Investing in our diplomacy isn’t something we do just because it’s the right thing to do for the world. We do it in order to live in peace, security, and prosperity. We do it because it’s in our own naked self-interest. When we strengthen our alliances, we amplify our power as well as our ability to disrupt threats before they can reach our shores.”
“Naked self-interest” – again, the infamous plagiarist of British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock’s biography has stolen from the 20th century’s worst president. It’s right from Jimmy Carter’s talking points on the SALT II treaty, ultimately rejected by a Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate: “SALT II is not a favor we are doing for the Soviet Union,” Carter told Congress. “It’s a deliberate, calculated move that we are making as a matter of self-interest for the United States.
“We are a country that does big things,” Biden said in his speech – the setting of which was, naturally, the State Department. “American diplomacy makes it happen. And our administration is ready to take up the mantle and lead once again.”
But as was pithily pointed out by Daniel Fried, who gained the trust of the last five presidents, from Clinton to Trump, “diplomacy is not merely talking somebody into something; it’s talking to somebody from a position of strength. You put your power on the table to open up the conversation; that’s diplomacy.”
The power that makes it happen is as absent in the Biden foreign policy as it was in Carter’s. The real threats to America today aren’t Russian bots but concrete realities that don’t get the media attention they deserve, like Beijing’s exercise of economic and military power in pursuit of objectives of world dominance – goals China has not been shy about advertising. This is no Marjorie Taylor Greene fringe theory, and neither is the very real danger that still exists of Islamist terror to the free world, from al-Qaida, ISIS, and other entities.
‘Plenty of Words’
In a speech starkly different from Biden’s, heavy on historical specifics and light on heady cliches, Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, visiting the Nixon Library last July, warned that “the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it and we must not return to it.”
He noted that “some are insisting that we preserve the model of dialogue for dialogue’s sake,” but noted that in a recent meeting with Chinese Communist Party foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi, “it was the same old story – plenty of words, but literally no offer to change any of the behaviors.” What reason is there to believe that Honest Anthony Blinken, Pompeo’s successor, has the magic words when crossing our fingers and hoping prosperity will restrain Beijing’s expansionist plans has failed administrations of both parties for decades?
Pompeo’s prescription was to speak of the Chinese government as Ronald Reagan spoke of the Soviet regime he defeated in the Cold War, identifying it as the ideological evil it is and distinguishing it from the people it rules. The United States should “engage and empower the Chinese people – a dynamic, freedom-loving people who are completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “Communists almost always lie. The biggest lie that they tell is to think that they speak for 1.4 billion people who are surveilled, oppressed, and scared to speak out.”
He pointed to the fact that “unlike the Soviet Union, China is deeply integrated into the global economy … the USSR was closed off from the free world; communist China is already within our borders.” And far from embracing unilateralism, Pompeo declared that “the United Nations, NATO, the G7 countries, the G20, our combined economic, diplomatic, and military power is surely enough to meet this challenge if we direct it clearly and with great courage,” wondering if “maybe it’s time for a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies. We have the tools. I know we can do it. Now we need the will. To quote scripture, I ask, is ‘our spirit willing but our flesh weak?’”
In addition to recognizing communist China as communist, the Trump Administration conducted a whole-of-government strategy of expanding freedom of navigation operations throughout the East and South China Seas and in the Taiwan Strait, and in the economic realm initiated a strategy of neutralizing the debt trap diplomacy of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, such as through the aggressive launching of a $27 billion China Program within the Export-Import Bank of the United States.
By contrast, President Biden’s priorities are to make State Department bureaucrats feel more important, or as he puts it, “I want the people who work in this building and our embassies and consulates around the world to know: I value your expertise and I respect you, and I will have your back. This administration is going to empower you to do your jobs, not target or politicize you.”
Pompeo sought to empower the people oppressed by the government of our adversary. Biden seeks to empower the government bureaucrats on the front lines of appeasing that adversary, as they have appeased the United States’ adversaries in times past.
Such is the will of the wimp.