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Joe Biden Has Only Days to Avoid Becoming Jimmy Carter

Niall Ferguson

It is just over a year since some eminent historians were comparing Joe Biden to Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson and hailing the advent of a “transformative” presidency. My response at the time was that it was more likely to be a reprise of Jimmy Carter’s. This is starting to look as good a prediction as my Jan. 2 call that war was coming to Ukraine.

It was on July 15, 1979, that Jimmy Carter delivered what came to be known as his “malaise” address to the nation — though the word did not appear in the text. Intended as a bold, broad-brush speech about “about national concerns, the energy crisis, reorganizing the government, our nation’s economy, and issues of war and especially peace,” it has gone down in history as a political suicide note.

“It’s clear,” Carter said, “that the true problems of our nation are much deeper … than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession.” He quoted one of many American religious leaders and intellectuals with whom he’d recently spoken: “We are confronted with a moral and a spiritual crisis.” He went on dolefully:

A crisis of confidence … strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America. … Our people are losing … faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy.

No one now remembers the solutions Carter proposed to the energy crisis, nor the fact that, eventually (in the 2010s), at least some of them were adopted — in particular, the development of America’s own oil and gas resources to reduce its dependence on imported oil. Although the speech was initially well-received, it was Carter’s downbeat litany of the nation’s woes that stuck. And the reason it stuck was that the man who would defeat him in the 1980 presidential election — Ronald Reagan — offered a lethal critique. “I find no national malaise,” declared Reagan. “I find nothing wrong with the American people.”

For Reagan, the problems of America had much more to do with the failure of the Carter administration to overcome the chronic problem of inflation and — more importantly — to abandon the strategy of detente with the Soviet Union that Reagan had begun criticizing under President Richard Nixon, who had initiated it.

The reason Reagan’s critique resonated with voters was simple: There really was a clear causal link between foreign policy failures and inflation. Carter delivered his speech between two major geopolitical disasters: the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On Feb. 11 that year, the ailing and absent Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was deposed and power handed to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. On April 1, Iranians voted to turn their country into an Islamic Republic. By the end of the year, Khomeini was installed as its “supreme leader.”

In itself, the revolution was a policy calamity in the Middle East for the U.S., which had underwritten the shah’s regime as a counterweight to Iraq (where Saddam Hussein also came to power in 1979). But the scale of the disaster was brought home to Americans in November, when revolutionary Islamist students seized control of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 of its staff hostage, in retaliation for the deposed shah’s admission to the U.S. for cancer treatment.

Meanwhile, a quite different revolution in Afghanistan led to one of the decisive events of the Cold War. The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan had been established in 1978 by army officers sympathetic to Soviet communism. However, the new regime’s attempts to secularize a deeply traditional Muslim and ethnically fragmented society backfired. Convinced that Afghanistan would slip out of the Soviet sphere of influence, and aware of Central Intelligence Agency support for the antigovernment mujahideen, the senile Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was finally persuaded by his more hawkish colleagues to intervene.

On Christmas Day 1979, Soviet airborne forces began to land in Kabul. Within days, the Afghan president had been executed — Moscow had lost all confidence in him — and 100,000 Red Army troops were in the country. (The last of them left, defeated, 10 years later.)

It is worth recalling how Carter reacted to these events. In the case of Iran, he infamously ordered a rescue mission — Operation Eagle Claw — that ended in humiliating failure on April 24, 1980, when one of the U.S. helicopters intended to evacuate the hostages crashed into a transport aircraft, killing eight American servicemen. But he also imposed economic sanctions, freezing about $8.1 billion in Iranian assets and imposing a trade embargo.

In the case of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter again opted for sanctions. He placed an embargo on shipments of commodities such as grain to the Soviet Union and suspended high-technology exports. He also boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and withdrew the SALT II treaty from consideration by the Senate.

Carter’s approval rating had touched an all-time low of 28% in June 1979 and, despite rallying briefly in early 1980, never got back above 40% as the election campaign unfolded. Inflation, which had stood at 5.2% in the month of Carter’s inauguration, hit an all-time high of 14.6% in April 1980, driven skyward by the surge in oil prices that followed the Iranian Revolution.

In January 1979, the spot crude price for a barrel of West Texas Intermediate had been $14.85. By July 1980 it had more than doubled to $39.50. Carter tried to counter inflation by nominating Paul Volcker to be Fed chair in July 1979. But, as Milton Friedman long ago taught us, monetary policy operates with long and variable lags. Inflationary expectations were not truly broken until 1982.

If all of this sounds strangely familiar, it is because we are living through our own version of these events. Karl Marx memorably observed that history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” But sometimes you just get two tragedies in succession.

Now, as then, we have witnessed a foreign power sucked into the maelstrom of Afghanistan and defeated — except that this time it was the U.S. and its allies who lost, not the Soviets. Now, as then, we have witnessed an odious regime in Moscow order the invasion of a sovereign state — except that this time it is Ukraine, not Afghanistan. Now, as then, Iran is humiliating a Democratic administration — except that this time the humiliation takes the form of reckless concessions as Team Biden attempts to resuscitate the 2015 nuclear deal in the desperate hope of lowering gasoline prices by releasing Iranian oil to the world market.

Now, as then, inflationary pressures that originated in lax fiscal and monetary policies are being exacerbated by geopolitical events, and the Federal Reserve is woefully behind the curve. Now, as then, the American public is emerging from one of its periodic bouts of introspection (“We’re so divided, it really sucks”) into one of its equally recurrent bouts of global engagement (“These bad people will be a threat to us someday if we don’t do something”). According to a new ABC poll, Biden’s approval rating is now down to 37%, compared with 50% last June.

Let me put it simply: The Biden presidency is teetering on the verge of a foreign policy cascade of disaster as bad as — and potentially worse than — Carter’s in 1979, with obvious implications for his and his party’s political future this year and in 2024. The president and his national security team have made multiple blunders since taking over from President Donald Trump, who, despite his odious admiration of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and generally erratic conduct, managed to redefine U.S. national security strategy, deter America’s principal rivals from aggression, and even to strengthen somewhat the military position of Ukraine.

After his election, Biden boasted: “America is back.” It turns out he meant “on its back.” The most salient errors of the past 13 months have been the ignominious surrender of Afghanistan to the Taliban (yes, it was Trump’s “peace” deal, but the execution errors were all Biden’s) and the naive belief that Putin could be deterred from invading Ukraine by the threat of economic sanctions, or by publicizing U.S. intelligence about invasion plans, or by somehow getting the Chinese to dissuade him.

Biden is very fortunate in the press coverage he gets from the New York Times and Washington Post, who were a great deal tougher in their coverage of Carter. This has been an unmitigated debacle, culminating not merely in the biggest war Europe has witnessed since the end of World War II but in a potentially much larger challenge to the security of the U.S. and its allies.

Let us have no illusions. Though the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion is heroic — and the pitch-perfect war leadership of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy deeply impressive — there is very little chance as things stand that Putin can lose this war. His forces may have encountered more effective opposition than they expected, and they have certainly suffered much greater losses than Putin foresaw, but the Russians retain overwhelming superiority. If the Blitzkrieg fails, they can switch to pure Blitz, bombarding Ukraine into submission.

Kyiv has held out bravely. If the Ukrainians’ struggle for independence and freedom does not move you, then you have forgotten what it is to be an American. But no, wars are not won by Facebook posts, no matter how inspirational. There is every reason to fear a brutal Russian escalation that leaves multiple cities, including Kyiv, in ruins, and Zelenskiy dead or a captive.

No sanctions — not even the most stringent currently under discussion — can avert this outcome, any more than sanctions reversed the Iranian Revolution or forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan in 1979-80. In that sense, the current debate about the SWIFT global messaging and payment system is really a distraction. No amount of financial pain, whether it is inflicted on Putin personally, the Russian banks, the Russian central bank or the entire Russian population, can stop the bombardment of Kyiv. Even a ban on Western imports of Russian oil and natural gas — which remains highly unlikely, given the difficulty and cost of swiftly replacing those source of energy — would not deter Putin from pursuing his war by all means necessary to secure victory.

Putin is a student of history. He knows the fate that awaits Russian leaders who lose wars. We all recall what befell the last Romanov tsar, Nicholas II, who not only suffered defeat in World War I, but also lost the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, a defeat that triggered the first of two Russian Revolutions.

But another sobering case that Putin must ponder is the wretched fate of Nicholas I, who went to war with the Ottoman Empire in 1853 only to find Russia isolated and faced with an Anglo-French expedition to Crimea that culminated in the fall of Sevastopol. Though he died of pneumonia in 1855, it was said that the tsar refused treatment as the ignominy of losing the Crimean War was intolerable to him.

This is why Putin has so drastically upped the ante on Sunday by condemning Western sanctions as “illegitimate” and placing Russia’s deterrence — i.e., nuclear — forces on “a special regime of duty.” The real point of this threat (a classic Cold War ploy) is to deter hawks in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries from contemplating a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

There are clearly serious risks of escalation here. Putin has gambled his life on this invasion. He will certainly not hesitate to sacrifice the lives of thousands if not millions of people if he believes it is the only way to preserve his own. The fact that there is already a live cyberwar that almost certainly involves NATO countries attacking Russian websites means that the conflict has already spilled over beyond the borders of Ukraine.

Russia is using Belarus as a launchpad for its ground forces and perhaps for missiles, too. Turkey has closed the Black Sea Straits to at least some Russian naval vessels. Finland and Sweden are seriously considering joining NATO. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has just announced a long-overdue increase to the country’s defense budget, part of an astonishing sea change in German politics precipitated by this war.

Finally, there is a major danger that, if Putin is successful in his war of aggression, other dictators around the world will be emboldened to adopt similar lawless methods. The most obvious risk is that, after President Xi Jinping has secured his third term as China’s leader, he will turn to “reunification” with Taiwan, which remains his most cherished political goal. Taiwan matters more to American global predominance than Ukraine, not least because of its key role as the world’s most advanced semiconductor manufacturer. At the same time, Taiwan’s people are highly unlikely to fight as tenaciously as the Ukrainians against an invading neighbor.

When the shoes start dropping in foreign affairs, it can start to resemble a Foot Locker in an earthquake. If 1979 was Carter’s annus horribilis, 1980 was only a little better, with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in September. (He was fortunate that the Soviets waited until 1981 to give the green light to martial law in Poland to suppress the trade union Solidarity.)

I fear 2023 could turn out much worse. And I dread a 2024 election that delivers the White House not to a new Ronald Reagan — I’m looking at you, Ron DeSantis — but back to Donald Trump. Trump’s version of the “madman theory” of foreign policy may have worked once, but it would be collective madness to risk four more years of it.

So what can Biden do to salvage this situation? There is of course an urgent need to break Russia’s power as an energy exporter to Europe, which has been the key to Putin’s military buildup and to the passivity, not to say appeasement, favored by many European politicians until now. Along with Citadel’s Ken Griffin, I made the case last week for a rapid reorientation of Europe’s energy imports to U.S. natural gas. But such a shift will take years. Like sanctions — indeed, like most forms of economic warfare — it cannot decide a conflict that is raging, any more than the British blockade of Germany was the decisive factor in World War I.

To avoid the fate of Carter, I believe Biden needs to go back further in time than 1979 and reflect on how Henry Kissinger played a not dissimilar geopolitical crisis in October 1973, when a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. (If your memory needs refreshing, I recommend Martin Indyk’s excellent new book on the subject.) Recall that Israel, like Ukraine today, was not a NATO member and could expect no support from the UN Security Council, not least because of the Soviet presence as a permanent member of that body.

At the risk of over-simplification, Kissinger’s approach can be summarized as follows. First, he ensured that Israel received U.S. military arms to the extent necessary to avert defeat, but not on such a scale that they could humiliate the Arabs. Second, he seized the diplomatic initiative, ensuring that any peace would be brokered by the U.S., with the Soviets effectively excluded. Third, Kissinger was himself willing to use a heightened nuclear alert to intimidate Moscow.

These are precisely the things the Biden administration is not doing. Although the U.S. has been arming Ukraine, the amounts involved — $60 million in the fall, $200 million in December and now a further $350 million — are not nearly enough to ensure Ukraine survives the Russian onslaught. The amount needs to be at least tripled and the hardware needs to start arriving on Ukrainian soil in U.S. military aircraft, as it arrived in Israel in 1973, tomorrow. If Kyiv falls, the supplies to sustain Ukrainian resistance must continue.

In Operation Cyclone, the Carter and Reagan administrations provided $6.2 billion in military assistance to the mujahideen to help them fight the Soviets. (That’s $24 billion in 2022 dollars.) We need to help on a comparable scale brave Ukrainian partisans who continue the fight against Putin.

Secondly, if the military balance can belatedly be restored and a Russian victory averted, the U.S. needs to initiate the peace negotiations in the role of broker. That means Secretary of State Antony Blinken needs to take a crash course in shuttle diplomacy, ensuring that all the interested parties are brought on board, and that it is America and not Russia that calls the shots. Here, sanctions may provide some leverage. If they do not, there is always Defcon 3. It worked in October 1973.

Contrary to popular belief, another loathsome Russian dictator named Vladimir — Lenin — never said: “There are decades where nothing happens, there are weeks where decades happen.” The real quote is from a letter Marx wrote to Friedrich Engels in 1863. “Only your small-minded German philistine,” declared Marx, “who measures world history by … what he happens to think are ‘interesting news items,’ could regard 20 years as more than a day where major developments of this kind are concerned, though these may be again succeeded by days into which 20 years are compressed.”

It does feel as if 20 years have been compressed into the past week. But only by applying history from 50 years ago can Joe Biden now rescue his presidency from terminal malaise.

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