Opinion

Has Obama shed his Jimmy Carter image?

Photo of James Carafano
James Carafano
Director, Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
  • See All Articles
  • Subscribe to RSS
  • Bio

      James Carafano

      James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security, defense affairs, and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation. He has testified before the U.S. Congress many times and has provided commentary for ABC, BBC, CBS, CNBC, CNN, C-SPAN, Fox News, MSNBC, NBC, SkyNews, PBS, National Public Radio, the History Channel, Voice of America, Al Jazeera, and Australian, Austrian, Canadian, French, Greek, Hong Kong, Irish, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish television.

      His editorials have appeared in newspapers nationwide including The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, The New York Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today and The Washington Times. He is a weekly columnist at the DC Examiner. Carafano is a member of the National Academy's Board on Army Science and Technology, the Department of the Army Historical Advisory Committee, and is a Senior Fellow at the George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute. He was the creative director for the feature-length documentary 33 Minutes: Protecting America in the New Missile Age. An accomplished historian and teacher, Carafano was an Assistant Professor at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and served as director of military studies at the Army's Center of Military History. He also taught at Mount Saint Mary College in New York and served as a fleet professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

      He is a visiting professor at the National Defense University and Georgetown University. He is the author of many books and studies. Carafano coauthored Winning the Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Freedom. The first to coin the term, the "long war," the authors argue that a successful strategy requires a balance of prudent military and security measures, continued economic growth, the zealous protection of civil liberties and winning the "war of ideas" against terrorist ideologies. Carafano joined Heritage in 2003. Before becoming a policy expert, he served 25 years in the Army.

      A graduate of West Point, Carafano also has a master's degree and a doctorate from Georgetown University and a master's degree in strategy from the U.S. Army War College.

Politico’s Alexander Burns trumpets President Obama’s newly minted reputation as a tough-on-national-security leader. In “President Obama dashes ‘Jimmy Carter’ label” he notes: “Obama’s overall approval numbers have rallied since May 1, when he announced Bin Laden’s death from the East Room of the White House.”

Burns also quotes former Bush administration official Pete Wehner, who “described Bin Laden’s death as a political ‘circuit breaker,’ writing in Commentary magazine: ‘The specter of Jimmy Carter was beginning to haunt the Obama administration. For now, at least, that narrative is stopped in its tracks.”

Yet, it is far from clear that getting bin Laden proves Obama has shed his inner Jimmy Carter. The chief goal of the Obama doctrine is to do the minimum to get by in the world — not to do nothing. Each of his decisions to send troops into harm’s way, including the Seal Team Six strike on bin Laden, reflects the president’s minimalist approach to the exercise of American power. I outlined each of these in a post at Family Security Matters.

The bottom line is that when Obama’s foreign policy mirrors conservative foreign policy, his numbers go up. That should not come as much of a surprise. After all, most of the nation is center-right and, overwhelmingly, these Americans believe government should zealously uphold its constitutional responsibility to “provide for the common defense.”

The problem with Obama’s consistently minimalist approach to national security and the use of force is that it is consistently predictable. That makes it easy for a determined enemy to frustrate. Minimal force and incremental commitments offer the enemy time to adjust. Gaddafi, for one, has shown that. He is still hanging on. At the same time, the clear reluctance to assert U.S. interests have let leaders in places like Iran, Venezuela, Russia, and China run circles around the United States.

The president fails when he follows his foreign policy instincts. He succeeds when he ignores them. To keep his poll numbers up, he will have to adopt a more conservative foreign policy overall. For Barack Obama to avoid becoming the next Jimmy Carter, he will need to recognize that what has brought him “success” is bending — and at times abandoning — his own doctrine.

James Jay Carafano is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.