When the Iranian student revolutionaries took American hostages in 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter chose a path consistent with his character, but inconsistent with the American character. He tried desperately, again and again, to prove to the Islamist revolutionaries and their ruling Mullahs that the big bad United States would not be a bully or resort to violence to enforce its views or to protect its assets, even when those assets are American citizens. His strategy failed.
That strategy is still a failure. And, by all accounts, our current president is hell-bent on employing it whenever he can.
In a book that shows clearly the parallels between the dilemma posed to America by Iran during Carter’s regime and the one Iran presents to our current president, To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the “Arab Spring,” Ruthie Blum brings the not-so-distant-history alive.
Blum’s book is a must read for those who lived through and remember that first Iranian assault on American leadership. But it’s also for those too young to remember that episode – and really, it’s for everyone now living through the current Iranians’ attack on America’s role as leader of the free world and bulwark against the unfree world. In both cases the Iranians have played America for a fool, and in both cases they had a U.S. leader who willingly, maybe even eagerly, took on that role.
For those old enough to remember, in 1979, when Jimmy Carter was president, he was furiously engaged in an effort to persuade the Islamists in Iran that the United States harbored only “genuine good will” towards them. What he most sought from them was “dialogue,” not disagreements. His timidity encouraged rather than discouraged those who sought to overthrow America’s long-time ally, the Shah of Iran. Instead of reaching out to meet U.S. overtures, Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers refused to meet, let alone negotiate, with Carter’s emissaries.
Blum’s clear writing, coupled with her ability to convey the real drama of the historical events she describes, allow the reader to place the complicated series of diplomatic falters, Iranian acts of aggression and the parading of blind-folded Americans for more than a year, in a comprehensible context.
Blum then juxtaposes America-Under-Carter’s response, to that of the Obama administration’s fawning over the Arab Spring and reluctance to meddle in the efforts of today’s revolutionaries across the Arab Middle East – other than to hand millions of dollars to Islamists organizing these nationwide riots that our President seems to think are events of national liberation. Blum’s book is essential reading for those who want to understand why, this time around, we should have known better.
Blum’s book shows that what look to some uninformed Westerners, including the president of the United States, like progressive, democratic impulses, have turned out instead to be determined flights backwards to the Middle Ages.
Tunisian pushcart merchant Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-incineration as the spark for the greatest upheaval in the Middle East in modern times is laid out in Blum’s book. She illuminates the path from Tunisia to Libya, to Yemen and Bahrain and, where it remains hovering, over Syria and, possibly, hopefully, back toIran.
After reviewing Carter’s misguided and disastrous Middle East strategy, it is painful to then read how closely our current administration’s strategy tracks the Carter debacle in its mindset and its failures.
Blum reveals the perfect consistency between Carter’s craven posture before Ayatollah Khomeini and Obama’s whiplash-like series of always-off-kilter responses to the Arab Spring: his cutting ties with former ally Tunisian president Ben Ali, his refusal to do more than mouth platitudes to support the outraged Iranian citizenry when their election was stolen by the tyrannical Ahmadinejad, his delivering a swift kick out the door to our former close ally Egyptian President Hosnai Mubarak. And so on.
The admonition from Kohelet Rabbah 7:16: “Those who are kind to the cruel end up being cruel to the kind” is perfectly illustrated by the misguided efforts of two recent American leaders who thought they could convince truly evil adversaries to refrain from doing evil if only the powerful America would treat them more nicely.
Although To Hell in a Handbasket is very consciously launched during this election season, it would be a shame for it to be relegated to merely a momentary flash in the literary pan. At fewer than 200 pages and written from hard historical sources that might otherwise seem dry to an average reader, Blum’s book moves like a novel. It will be an invaluable addition to any college or sophisticated high school student’s library as a tool for understanding America’s place in the geo-political moment.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus