Jimmy Carter has backtracked from his comment suggesting that George W. Bush is the worst president in history, and let’s hope his gesture soothes relations between the two. Because if there is a place in the next world where unsuccessful presidents go to pay for their sins, Carter and Bush will be sharing a cell for a long, long time.
Bush had a Carteresque moment the other day when a bird left a calling card on his sleeve during an outdoor news conference. Like his predecessor’s 1979 confrontation with a killer rabbit, it suggested the president is so unpopular that even lower species are turning against him.
Failing at the job and suffering low approval ratings are not the only things the two have in common. In fact, beyond surface differences like party and ideology, there is ample evidence that Bush is to Carter what Mary-Kate is to Ashley.
Carter presided over a country wracked by economic chaos, violence, political disarray and a sense of national decline. Bush does as well — though this time, the country is Iraq rather than the United States. Carter stood helpless as Iran took Americans hostage at our embassy in Tehran. Bush has stood helpless while Iran pursues the means to hold its neighbors hostage with nuclear weapons.
Carter was responsible for a military debacle, the 1980 effort to rescue our Iran hostages, that killed eight American service personnel. Bush is responsible for a military debacle, the occupation of Iraq, that has killed more than 3,300 American service personnel. Under Carter, Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan bled the Soviet military. Under Bush, Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan bleed the U.S. military.
Carter, as an ex-president, helped negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korea that the other side failed to live up to. Bush negotiated a nuclear deal with North Korea that the other side has failed to live up to. Carter acquired a reputation as stubborn, self-righteous and unwilling to listen to anyone outside his inner circle. Notice a pattern here?
Both men had life-altering religious experiences as adults, and both profited from the support of evangelicals. Both campaigned in favor of a more modest foreign policy. Bush’s 2000 declaration that we should be "a humble nation" echoed what Carter said in 1976: "A strong nation, like a strong person, can afford to be gentle, firm, thoughtful and restrained."
Once in office, though, their restraint abated. In its place emerged a messianic dream of remaking the world in our image. The former thought we could spread democracy and human rights by moral suasion. The latter thought we could spread democracy and human rights by invasion. They were surprised by the world’s resistance to reform.
Jeane Kirkpatrick, who later served as President Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in 1979 that the Carter administration had fallen victim to three misconceptions about governments it didn’t like, such as those of Iran and Nicaragua: "first, the belief that there existed at the moment of crisis a democratic alternative to the incumbent government; second, the belief that the continuation of the status quo was not possible; third, the belief that any change . . . was preferable to the present government." Bush took those errors and applied them to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Oil prices soared under Carter as the economy stagnated. Oil prices have soared under Bush as the economy prospers. Carter preached fiscal discipline but let federal spending rise by 17 percent more than inflation during his four years. Bush preached tax cuts but let federal spending rise by 19 percent more than inflation during his first four years.
The two illustrate the dangers of taking a reasonable approach too far. The 39th president was overly eager to negotiate and thus let other countries get away with actions that harmed our interests. The 43rd president is overly reluctant to negotiate and thus lets other nations get away with actions that harm our interests.
Both found that their policies in the Persian Gulf had the unintended consequence of inflaming Islamic extremism. Both found their trust in Russian leaders to be unwarranted. Both caused their parties to lose control of at least one house of Congress.
The Bush experience proves that philosopher George Santayana was too optimistic. Even those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it.