My vacation last week was not as ill-timed as that of Samantha Power, the expert on stopping genocide who went back to visit Ireland just at the point when it became necessary for the U.S. to stop a genocide.
That's the big breaking foreign policy news: the Assad regime's chemical weapons attack against civilians in Syria. I won't write much about that attack or the administration's reaction, because whatever I say is likely to be quickly overtaken by events, particularly if President Obama decides to intervene. Maybe he will, maybe he won't, maybe it's already too late. Maybe we'll wait for the French to do it.
This is what really puts Power on the spot: she made a name for herself arguing for America's responsibility to use force to prevent genocide -- and she is now in the position of having to put her money where her mouth used to be.
But President Obama's history of dithering on Syria -- there was evidence of chemical weapons attacks months ago -- has prompted some comparisons to Jimmy Carter's foreign policy. There were a lot of folks who argued back in 2008 that if Obama were elected, we would get Jimmy Carter's second term. Well, if we get it, we'll get it in Barack Obama's second term.
But it strikes me that the really essential comparison to Carter is somewhat different, and it explains why the very thing that may prompt Obama to action in Syria has wrecked his policy in the other big conflict in the Middle East.
One of the key problems of the Carter administration's policy was it elevation of a short-term concern for "human rights" over our long-term interest in opposing Communism (and radical Islam). That's what prompted the U.S., for example, to abandon authoritarian regimes in Nicaragua and Iran, at the expense of enabling the expansion or establishment of much more dangerous dictatorships.
This was one of the key changes made by the Reagan administration and particularly championed by Reagan's UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. The "Kirkpatrick Doctrine" advocated support for all opponents of Communism, including authoritarian regimes in what we used to call the "Third World."
From a long-term perspective, after the end of the Cold War, the Kirkpatrick Doctrine has been vindicated. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a liberating event that did so much for the cause of freedom and representative government that it makes our short-term support for "friendly dictators" look like it was worth it. That's especially true when we observe how many of those "friendly" dictatorships -- Chile, El Salvador, Argentina, Taiwan, South Korea, South Africa -- have since made a peaceful transition to become free societies. Meanwhile, it is the old leftover Marxists, in places like Cuba, North Korea and Zimbabwe, who are still stubbornly clinging to power.
This is the lesson President Obama is ignoring in Egypt. His Carterish concern for "human rights" may prompt him to intervene in Syria (as Carter did, covertly, in Afghanistan), but it is making a hash of his policy in Egypt.
In Egypt, the military leadership has not merely overthrown Mohammed Morsi's increasingly dictatorial government; it has basically imposed a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood.
That is has done so through the bloody suppression of pro-Morsi street protests creates a dilemma for the United States. As the old darkly humorous quip would have it, "it's worse than a crime, it's a blunder." That was originally said about the summary execution, on Napoleon's orders, of an aristocratic counter-revolutionary. It was a crime, certainly, but it was also a political error, since it made Napoleon's rule look arbitrary and tyrannical. Killing people always creates a deficit of moral authority that tends to cancel out the benefit a regime gets from eliminating its rivals.