A Review of ‘To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the Arab Spring’ (By Ruthie Blum)
by RUTH KING
October 18, 2012
Ruthie Blum's essential book "To Hell in a Handbasket- Carter, Obama and the Arab Spring" offers irrefutable evidence that misguided foreign policy with respect to popular uprisings against tyrants often creates worse problems than those it seeks to alleviate.
While most commentators and pundits stress the present crisis with a nuclear Iran, they fail to see the overthrow of Iran's Shah and the subsequent hostage crisis of 1979 as prologue and lesson for today.
Blum revisits that event and succinctly states in the opening pages: "It is the story of how a short sighted leader of the Free World, in an attempt to ingratiate himself with-rather than defeat- the forces that would see him and it destroyed, enabled the rise and spread of a pernicious form of radicalism that threatens the globe to this day." That leader was Jimmy Carter but the words could easily apply to the present occupant of the White House, whose obsequiousness to the Moslem world and feeble responses to direct aggression against the United States encourage our enemies and discourage our allies.
Blum sets the timetable and sequence of those events which led to Iran's overthrow of the Shah, Carter's muddled response, and the advice of "experts" such as George Ball who headed the White House task force on Iran, Professor Richard Cottam, a scholar of Iranian politics, Henry Precht who headed the Iran desk at the State Department, and Ambassador to Iran William Sullivan who reassured the President that a more moderate and democratic regime would replace the Shah.
Princeton Professor Richard Falk, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, National Council of Churches offshoot "Clergy and Laity Concerned" all cooed about the Ayatollah's "integrity and honesty. " Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young declared that Islam is " a vibrant cultural force in today's world"....and added for good measure that "Khomeini will be somewhat of a saint when we get over the panic."
In short, we could anticipate another Gandhi without the loincloth.
In addition to the ignorant advice of the foregoing, Carter was preoccupied with other affairs of state.
In a particulaly pithy statement here is how Ruthie Blum describes Carter's reaction to the impending overthrow of the Shah:".....the President had his plate full of other concerns at home and abroad...These included creating departments of energy and education; bailing out the Chrysler corporation; trying to reform healthcare; pressuring Israel during its negotiations with Egypt; negotiating SALT with the Soviet Union; making a deal with China; helping the (communist)Sandinistas in Nicaragua overthrow Somoza; relinquishing control of the Panama Canal; and last but not least trying to ensure his reelection....."
It is worth noting that Carter had also been preoccupied that year in "nation building" in Africa where he facilitated the takeover of British ruled Rhodesia which became Zimbabwe and deliberately schemed against the elected Bishop Bishop Abel Muzorewa to install Mugabe a Marxist who has ruled and ruined that once prosperous state.
To his great credit, Professor Bernard Lewis dissented and quoted Khomeini's book "Islamic Government" a primer on the philosophy of Islamic statehood, harsh denunciations of non-Muslims and calls for the spread of Sharia law across the world. However, the New York Times rejected a column by him exposing the Islamist agenda of Khomeini and Carter and his advisers, the CIA and all the "Iran hands" at the State Department ignored Khomeini's book and on February 1, 1979 a triumphant Khomeini landed in Teheran.
By February 10th, 1979 Israel's embassy was attacked by a mob screaming "Death to Israel" and "Long live Arafat." When the staff escaped, Arafat took over the empty building, unfurled the PLO flag and vowed that "under the Ayatollah's leadership, we will free Palestine." That August U.N Ambassador Andrew Young resigned from his post for having conducted clandestine and unauthorized meetings with the PLO.
Initially, after the Shah was exiled, Carter refused to grant him asylum, however, in mid-October 1979, Carter, ceding to the entreaties of former Secretary of State Kissinger, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Vice President Walter Mondale and assorted aides and confidantes relented and permitted the ailing Shah to enter the United States for treatment of advanced lymphoma.
Ruthie Blum sets the timeline and sequence of what transpired in Iran. I live near the hospital where the shah was admitted for treatment and well remember raucous protests outside which detoured traffic and pedestrians for several blocks.
On November 4th, 1979 the set was staged for what was to be a "spontaneous" uprising and siege of the American Embassy in Teheran. The siege, planned for weeks would be an assertion of Islamic victory and send a message to the "Satan" that rescued the Shah. Among the followers was a 23 year old student named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
By 10 A.M. 100-200 Muslim students broke into the embassy and were followed by hundreds of protesters who scaled the walls and gates. The U.S. Marines were nowhere to be seen and the Iranian forces did absolutely nothing as personnel were tied up and blindfolded and taken hostage.
The rest is, as they say, history, but Ruthie Blum's essential book tells us where and how that history began; how we abandoned an ally and paved the way for a brutal tyrant to replace him; how the Shah's exile in an American hospital was used initially to exculpate the hostage takers; how nothing was done to prevent it; how muted and confused was our response; how apologists shuttled to Teheran to plead rather than warn the criminals; how, in spite of their stubborn refusal to read Jimmy Carter's personal letter to "His Excellency", Carter continued to flog a diplomatic solution and economic sanctions; how our military mission to rescue the hostages failed and was aborted; and how they were ultimately freed.
On November 4th, 1980 President Jimmy Carter lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan .
"To Hell in a Handbasket-Carter, Obama and the Arab Spring"is an original, fast paced, meticulously researched book that catalogues the series of missteps that continue to be repeated as we confront our abject failures in Middle East policy, and the unraveling of the so-called "Arab Spring."
Read it before November 6th, 2012. You won't be able to put it down.
Ruthie Blum has graciously consented to an interview:
RK: You remember that when the so-called "Arab Spring" assumed a new reality with the demonstrations in Egypt, Americans were inclined to celebrate, announcing that democracy was now taking hold in the Middle East. This was, of course, foolish, to put it mildly. But how would you account for it?
RB: Liberal Americans tend to view fondly and with nostalgia the sight of young people storming the streets and screaming against their government. You know, like the "good old days" during the Vietnam War, when the so-called "best and brightest" were proudly stomping on their country's flag, denouncing their parents' generation, and evading the draft - all the while getting praised for it. These darlings of the 1960s are now occupying the White House or cheering it on from the sidelines.
The demonstrations in Egypt caused these liberals to empathize, without having a clue about the players in the Middle East. This has not prevented them from adopting the knee-jerk assumption that Israeli settlements are the region's real problem.
The Conservatives initially lauded the developments for a very different reason. They believed that the revolutions spreading across the Middle East indicated that George W. Bush's policies and views on democratization were now bearing fruit.
RK: How do you think, as you suggest in your book, that Jimmy Carter's response to the taking of American hostages in 1979 contributed this, related to this, if at all?
RB:Carter had been supportive of the ouster of the Shah of Iran and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Though the Shah had been a true American ally, he was an autocrat with expensive tastes. Carter believed that Khomeini was a good soul - a harmless, modest religious leader who would serve as a spiritual guide to a new, more egalitarian government. When the student radicals (among them Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) took the US Embassy staff hostage on November 4, 1979, Carter thought that the best way to handle it would be to let the "host government" take charge. After all, the same embassy had been stormed six months earlier, and the "host government" did intervene - after a Marine was murdered, that is.
But, as days turned into weeks and then into months, Carter figured his best policy would be to negotiate with the powers-that-be in Iran. Of course, he didn't really know who they were, but that's a different discussion.
Finally, when he did give a green light to a rescue operation several months into the crisis, it was too little, too late. Then, when the mission failed, Khomeini and the hostage-takers saw it as a sign from Allah that the "Great Satan" was being defeated.
Carter's attitude that America was largely responsible for the hatred of others towards it - as was Israel - did nothing but embolden enemies across the globe. Obama has the very same attitude today.
RK:Jimmy Carter was a failed, one-term president who left office more than 30 years ago. Why bother rehashing what he did back then?
RB: Carter may have lost the election to Ronald Reagan, but his legacy has lived on in the Democratic Party. In fact, it seems to have gotten stronger as the years go by. It is necessary to observe what he did, because there is an almost exact parallel going on today - both at home and abroad. It is crucial for Americans to see the connection between a weakened America and emboldened enemies. These are enemies who oppose freedom of any kind, and who make no bones about their intentions to spread their rule beyond all borders.
RK:The Arab Spring revolution, like the Islamic Revolution in 1978-9, erupted as a result of autocratic regimes that the people wanted to oust. Is the United States supposed to back rulers like the shah and Mubarak? What should Carter have done then - and what should Obama have done in response to the current uprisings?
RB: Carter should - first and foremost - have looked into the Ayatollah Khomeini and his teachings. He should not have decimated the CIA. He could have continued to pressure the Shah into instituting reforms. This is exactly what Obama should have done in relation to other autocrats and their opposition in the rest of the Muslim world. As Carter did with Khomeini, Obama was prepared to view the Muslim Brotherhood as a "moderate" organization, rather than educate himself on the forces that were actually taking over all the demonstrations across the Middle East. The only protests that Obama did not back were the anti-Islamist ones that took place in Iran in June 2009 surrounding the elections.
In other words, it is the job of the United States to support movements that most strive for Western values, while remaining steadfast against those that want to destroy the West. One could say that, in fairness to Carter, there had been no precedent for the rise of radical/political Islam when he became president; whereas Obama has had the benefit of decades of hindsight to know about this phenomenon. It is this fact that leads many to conclude that Obama actually sides with those radical forces.
RK:Events are still unfolding in the Middle East, and many experts assert that these kinds of revolutions take time - especially in cultures and countries that have no tradition of democracy. Why do you assume that they are not moving in this direction?
RB:All evidence points to the opposite. The demonstrations and "free election" results are pro-Islamist. Country-by-country, one can see the spread of Shariah law and the decrease in the rights of women and minorities, with a severe increase in the abuse of Christians. Some optimists have compared this to the French Revolution, asserting that there will be a lot of bloodshed for 100 years, and then there will be democracy. I don't consider this "moving in the right direction" while Iran is about to obtain nuclear weapons - something that, if allowed to happen, will cause the rest of the region to follow suit.
RK: Thank you Ruthie Blum for your book, your insight and your answers.
Ruth King, editorial board member of Family Security Foundation, Inc., is a freelance writer. She has written a book and articles on gardening, and also writes a monthly column in OUTPOST, the publication of Americans for a Safe Israel.