After six months in office, Barack Obama’s presidency reveals striking parallels not only to Bill Clinton’s troubled first term, but to Jimmy Carter’s only term. And, how those dangers are reappearing show that the Democrats and American progressives have learned little over the past 30 years.
Many analysts already have noted the eerie similarities between Obama’s troubles and Clinton’s political woes 16 years ago. In both cases, the Democratic presidents started off by rebuffing calls for serious investigations of abuses committed by their Republican predecessors.
However, instead of showing reciprocity, the Republicans went on the offensive ginning up “scandals” and challenging the legitimacy of the two Democrats, for instance, by spreading rumors linking Clinton to “mysterious deaths” and by winking at slurs about Obama not being born in the United States.
Republicans also voted solidly against major policy initiatives advanced by Clinton and Obama. Faced with that unified GOP resistance, the Democratic majorities started to splinter, especially over the key issue of health-care reform which became Clinton’s first-term “Waterloo” much as Republicans hope it will be for Obama.
Yet, arguably, the parallels to Jimmy Carter’s one-term presidency may be even more on point. Unlike Clinton whose reckless sexual behavior fueled the Republican campaigns against him, Carter and Obama are viewed as men of personal discipline and morality.
Carter and Obama – unlike Clinton – also showed a readiness to pressure Israel into making important concessions for peace in the Middle East. That interest in playing the “honest broker” contributed to Carter’s undoing and now might do the same for Obama.
Indeed, it was Carter’s tenacity in pushing Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to agree to the Camp David peace accords in 1978 – returning the Sinai to Egypt in exchange for what has turned out to be a lasting peace – that prompted a brazen Israeli intervention into U.S. presidential politics.
By spring 1980, an angry Begin had privately sided with the Republicans, whose fall campaign was to be led by right-wing candidate Ronald Reagan. Though hidden from the American people both then and now, this alliance was well known at the senior levels of both the Israeli and U.S. governments.
Begin – who had led a Zionist terrorist group before Israel’s independence in 1948 and founded the right-wing Likud Party in 1973 – decided he must take steps to prevent Carter from pushing for a broader Israel-Arab peace deal in a potential second term.
Begin’s views were described by Israeli intelligence and foreign affairs official David Kimche in his 1991 book, The Last Option. Kimche wrote that Begin’s government believed that Carter was overly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and was conspiring to force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank.
“Begin was being set up for diplomatic slaughter by the master butchers in Washington,” Kimche wrote. “They had, moreover, the apparent blessing of the two presidents, Carter and [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, for this bizarre and clumsy attempt at collusion designed to force Israel to abandon her refusal to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
Kimche continued, “This plan – prepared behind Israel’s back and without her knowledge – must rank as a unique attempt in United States’s diplomatic history of short-changing a friend and ally by deceit and manipulation.”
Begin particularly dreaded the prospect of a second Carter presidential term.
“Unbeknownst to the Israeli negotiators, the Egyptians held an ace up their sleeves, and they were waiting to play it,” Kimche wrote. “The card was President Carter’s tacit agreement that after the American presidential elections in November 1980, when Carter expected to be re-elected for a second term, he would be free to compel Israel to accept a settlement of the Palestinian problem on his and Egyptian terms, without having to fear the backlash of the American Jewish lobby.”
Begin’s fear of Carter’s reelection – and alarm over Carter's perceived bungling in Iran where Islamic extremists took power in 1979 – set the stage for secret collaboration between Begin and the Republican presidential campaign, according to another Israeli intelligence official, Ari Ben-Menashe.
In his 1992 memoir, Profits of War, Ben-Menashe said the view of Begin and other Likud leaders was one of contempt for Carter.
“Begin loathed Carter for the peace agreement forced upon him at Camp David,” Ben-Menashe wrote. “As Begin saw it, the agreement took away Sinai from Israel, did not create a comprehensive peace, and left the Palestinian issue hanging on Israel’s back.”
Ben-Menashe, an Iranian-born Jew who had immigrated to Israel as a teen-ager, became part of a secret Israeli program to reestablish its intelligence network in Iran after it had been decimated by the Islamic revolution.
Ben-Menashe wrote that Begin authorized shipments to Iran of small arms and some spare parts, via South Africa, as early as September 1979. In November of that year, events in Iran took another troubling turn when Islamic radicals seized the U.S. Embassy and took 52 Americans hostage, prompting a U.S. trade embargo.
By April 1980, however, Carter had learned about the covert Israeli shipments, which included 300 tires for Iran’s U.S.-supplied jet fighters. That prompted an angry complaint from Carter to Begin.
“There had been a rather tense discussion between President Carter and Prime Minister Begin in the spring of 1980 in which the President made clear that the Israelis had to stop that, and that we knew that they were doing it, and that we would not allow it to continue, at least not allow it to continue privately and without the knowledge of the American people,” Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell told me.
“And it stopped,” Powell said. At least, it stopped temporarily.
Questioned by congressional investigators a dozen years later, Carter said he felt that by April 1980, “Israel cast their lot with Reagan,” according to notes I found among the unpublished documents in the files of the so-called October Surprise investigation by a House task force.
Carter traced the Israeli opposition to his reelection to a “lingering concern [among] Jewish leaders that I was too friendly with Arabs.”
Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski also recognized the Israeli hostility. Brzezinski said the Carter White House was well aware that the Begin government had “an obvious preference for a Reagan victory.”
Extensive evidence exists, too, that Begin’s preference for a Reagan victory led Israelis to join in a covert operation with Republicans to contact Iranian leaders behind Carter’s back and delay release of the 52 American hostages until after Reagan defeated Carter in November 1980.
In his book and in sworn testimony about this so-called “October Surprise” controversy, Ben-Menashe asserted that then-GOP vice presidential candidate George H.W. Bush personally participated in a key meeting in October 1980 in Paris. Bush denied that claim at two press conferences in 1992 but was never questioned under oath in any formal government inquiry.
One of the reasons I have devoted so much time over the years to this October Surprise mystery is that Election 1980 represented a key turning point for the United States and the world. That such a moment may have turned on a near-treasonous dirty trick represents not only an outrageous American political scandal, but an Israeli one as well.
Indeed, it appears that a key factor in the successful cover-up of this scandal was that the full story might not only have hurt the Republicans but could have alienated Americans from Israel – if it were known that Likud had intervened to usher out of office a U.S. President who was deemed insufficiently supportive of the Israeli cause.
When Israel’s secret roles in the Iran-Contra scandal (as well as its prequel, the October Surprise case) were threatened with exposure, influential neoconservatives in the U.S. news media – especially at The New Republic – mounted fierce counterattacks against journalists, investigators and witnesses who tried to pull back the curtain.
Allied with powerhouse Republicans, like Rep. Dick Cheney of Wyoming and Henry Hyde of Illinois, the neocons successfully beat back any full accounting of the two inter-related arms-for-hostages scandals, Iran-Contra and October Surprise. That success was aided and abetted by bipartisan-seeking Democrats, such as Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana. [For details, see Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
The parallel between the Carter experience and what is now facing Obama is that Israel’s current Likud government sees Obama as someone, like Carter, who might approach peace talks evenhandedly rather than with the pro-Israeli bias that has prevailed over the past three decades.
Reagan’s Inauguration – which coincided with the release of the 52 hostages in Iran – also marked the opening for many neoconservatives to be credentialed into the Executive Branch and from those positions to advocate hard-line pro-Israeli policies.
Many of those same neocons returned in force under George W. Bush. For instance, Bush put Elliott Abrams in a key Middle East policy role for eight years. despite his Iran-Contra conviction (and pardon from President George H.W. Bush). Abrams served on the National Security Council and became an architect of the Iraq War.
The broader neocon strategy was to use U.S. military might to compel “regime change” in Middle Eastern nations considered hostile to Israel. First on the list was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to be followed by Syria and Iran, with the ultimate goal of starving close-in enemies, like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas, of outside financial support.
Then, the thinking went, Israel could consolidate its control of the best Palestinian lands seized in 1967 and dictate peace terms to the Arabs. But the grand neocon plan encountered greater than expected trouble in Iraq (leading to the deaths of more than 4,300 American soldiers as well as estimated hundreds of thousands of Iraqis).
Now, after the crushing Republican defeat in 2008, the new neocon game appears to be to help Israel wait out the Obama presidency. Central to that strategy will be to harass and wound Obama enough so that he will lack the political clout to force any significant concessions on Israel’s Likud government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
That appears to be one of the reasons why leading neocons like The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol have surfaced so prominently in the health care debate. Normally, neocons are relatively moderate on social issues, reserving their intensity for foreign policy fights.
But Kristol urged the Republicans to “go for the kill” on Obama’s embattled health-care plan.
“With Obamacare on the ropes, there will be a temptation for opponents to let up on their criticism, and to try to appear constructive, or at least responsible,” Kristol wrote on July 20. “My advice, for what it's worth: Resist the temptation. This is no time to pull punches. Go for the kill.”
If Obama suffers what Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, hopes will be his “Waterloo” on health care, the President will be weakened when it comes to other challenges. Rather than take on the formidable Israel Lobby, Obama might be more inclined to accede to Netanyahu’s demands related to a military strike against Iran.
Even if a weakened Obama won’t acquiesce to such an extreme action, Israel would stand a better chance at stalling peace talks with the Palestinians for the next 3 ½ years – until a more agreeable Republican might take the White House, much as Reagan replaced Carter.
Already, pro-Likud elements in the Israeli media have been riling up the population for a prolonged battle with Obama – and some of that anti-Obama animosity is spilling over into the American press as well.
On Tuesday, the New York Times devoted half its op-ed page to an article by Israeli journalist Aluf Benn complaining that Obama, as President, had not yet traveled to Israel to deliver a speech, although he has made a major address in Cairo to the Islamic world and has spoken elsewhere, such as Europe, Russia and Africa.
“But he hasn’t bothered to speak directly to Israelis,” Benn wrote, without bothering to note that Obama did visit Israel during the 2008 presidential campaign and, while there, denounced the rocket attacks that Hamas militants were firing into southern Israel. Nor did Benn note that Obama hasn’t addressed the people of China, India and many other countries.
Nevertheless, Benn’s article offered a window into how the Israeli media is reacting to Obama. “Israeli rightists have – in columns, articles and public statements – taken to calling the president by his middle name, Hussein, as proof of his pro-Arab tendencies,” Benn wrote.
Benn even cited criticism of Obama for his visit to the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald.
“Here [in Israel] we are taught that Zionist determination and struggle – not guilt over the Holocaust – brought Jews a homeland,” Benn wrote. “Mr. Obama’s speech, which linked Israel’s existence to the Jewish tragedy, infuriated many Israelis who sensed its closeness to the narrative of enemies like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.”
Given the hostility that Obama has engendered among right-wing Israelis and the continued influence of neocons in the U.S. political/media system, Obama, like Carter, appears surrounded by powerful adversaries, also including many business interests and social conservatives.
Obama is further disadvantaged by the fact that over the past three decades since Carter’s presidency, the American Right has invested tens of billions of dollars to construct a vast media machine that disseminates its coordinated messages instantaneously all across the United States via print, radio, TV and the Internet.
Meanwhile, over that same period, American liberals and progressives essentially chose to ignore the need for a media infrastructure. Even old-time liberal outlets, like The New Republic and The Atlantic, were taken over by neocon moneymen.
So, the stage is set for a sustained war against Obama and his presidency, with what is likely to include both the ugliness of the personal assault on Clinton and the secret maneuvering that proved so devastating against Carter.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on July 29, 2009.