Since Barack Obama emerged as the Democrat’s choice for president, the national mood has frequently been compared to the late 1960s, another time when an unpopular war polarized the nation. A recent ad for Republican candidate John McCain makes this explicit, starting off with clips of 60s protesters and “flower” children before warning that hope can be a slippery slope. But the dynamics in 2008 may have more in common with 1976, when a GOP discredited by Watergate, Richard Nixon’s resignation (under the threat of impeachment) and his pardon by Gerald Ford was defeated by a newcomer to national politics, Jimmy Carter.
Carter, an obscure but charming agribusinessman, became Georgia’s governor in 1970 with the support of an Atlanta establishment in need of someone who could talk populism while remaining in tune with corporate interests. Similarly, Obama looks like an “anti-establishment” politician but has played ball during most of his career with the Chicago political establishment. He ran for the state and US Senate as an outsider while operating like an insider, supported by Mayor Richard Daley and the city’s wealthy Gold Coast.
By the mid-70s, Carter was the darling of Eastern opinion-makers, meeting with David Rockefeller and lauded as a leader of the “New South.” In 1973, he was recommended for membership in the newly formed Trilateral Commission, a private international group that brought together leaders from the North America, Western Europe and Japan. Joining Carter on the North American section of the Commission were Rockefeller, Time Magazine Editor Hedley Donovan, corporate lawyers Cyrus Vance and Warren Christopher, Bendix Corporation chairman W. Michael Blumenthal, IBM director Harold Brown, UAW president Leonard Woodcock, and eight other business, union, and political figures. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a close friend of Rockefeller, became director of the Commission.
Carter subsequently used Commission sources for much of his presidential campaign strategy. A key document produced during this period was The Crisis of Democracy, co-authored by Brzezinski associate Samuel Huntington, who advised Carter during the campaign and subsequently coordinated security planning for Carter’s National Security Council. Brzezinski became National Security Advisor.
Huntington advised that a successful Democratic candidate for president would have to emphasize energy, decisiveness, and sincerity while coming across as an outsider. But the real lesson of the 1960s, he added, was that political parties “could be easily penetrated, and even captured, by highly motivated and well-organized groups with a cause and a candidate."
The appeal of Carter to the establishment was a combination of charm, an “interesting” family, traditional values, and his outsider image. But they knew he was essentially a “centrist” eager to be all things to all people, as Laurence Shoup explained in The Carter Presidency and Beyond. The same can be said of Obama.
Like Obama, Carter went from local curiosity to national phenomenon in less than four years, during a period when the public lost faith in the presidency and other national institutions. By 1975 The New York Times was regularly publishing pro-Carter editorials, articles and columns. Time Magazine was even more enthusiastic, in one feature describing him as looking “eerily like John Kennedy from certain angles” – and hammering the point home with a cover rendering. The drumbeat continued right through primary season with coverage that belittled competitors like Fred Harris, a real populist, with headlines like “Radicalism in a Camper.” Carter meanwhile received cover hypes like “Taking Jimmy Seriously.” The rest of the mainstream media soon came on board.
Why was it happening? As Brzezinski noted in an interview, there is no need to believe in hidden conspiracies. Groups like the Trilateral Commission and Council on Foreign Relations don’t conceal their intentions, he noted; you can easily find out what they hope to see happen. Huntington’s diagnosis and prescriptions were blunt, and remain relevant. The authority of government depends on confidence and trust, he explained, and when these decline both participation and polarization increase. “If the institutional balance is to be redressed between government and opposition, the decline in presidential power has to be reversed…”
Describing the surge in democratic aspirations as a form of “distemper,” Huntington advised that some of the problems “stem from an excess of democracy.” It’s just one way to exert authority, he argued, and sometimes should be overridden by “expertise, seniority, experience and special talents.” He also explained that “the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.” People sometimes make too many demands, thus making democracy a threat to itself, he wrote. The basic prescription was to restore respect for authority, particularly in the presidency as an institution, and lower the general level of expectations about what government can do.
When Carter became president, he packed his administration with members of the center and liberal wings of the Eastern establishment. At least 27 high level officials were members of the Trilateral Commission and Council on Foreign Relations, including Vice President Walter Mondale, Vance, Brzezinski, Blumenthal, Christopher, Brown, and Donovan. Pointing to an “alarming deterioration” in international relations and the threat of “long-term disaster,” Brown – as Secretary of Defense – prescribed leadership that would persuade people “to make sacrifices of individual and group advantages in order to produce long-term benefits of international economic and political partnership abroad.” Carter’s job was to restore trust and “renovate” the domestic and international system while leaving its basic structure intact. The fact that he failed in many respects is beside the point.
Now that Obama is the presumptive Democratic nominee, it’s becoming apparent that his administration would have many things in common with Carter’s. The leader of his foreign policy team is Susan Rice, an assistant Secretary of State for African affairs in the Clinton administration and, more to the point, a current member of the Trilateral Commission’s North American Group. Until recently, Trilaterial member James Johnson was on Obama’s vice presidential vetting team. He stepped down after questions surfaced about loans he received from Countrywide Financial Corp., a key player in the U.S. housing crisis.
Other North American Trilateral members in Obama’s inner circle include Brzezinski, former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Michael Froman of Citigroup, and former Congressman Dick Gephardt, along with Dennis Ross, Middle East envoy for Clinton and the first President Bush, and James Steinberg. Additional Trilateral members of Team Obama include Warren Christopher, Clinton National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, and the Commission’s North American Honorary Chairman Paul Volcker.
According to a recent New York Times article, Ross, who accompanied Obama to the Middle East in July, is often asked by Rice and Lake for help in framing Obama’s comments on Iran and Israel. Steinberg, a Dean at the University of Texas and member of both the Commission and CFR, authored a white-paper titled, “Preventive War, A Useful Tool.” In this telling essay, he wrote, “Unilateralism is not the only alternative… regional organizations and a new coalition of democratic states offer ways to legitimize the use of force when the council fails to meet its responsibilities.” The problem, he says, isn’t the Bush doctrine of “preventive force but that it too narrowly conceives of its use.”
The renewed prominence of Brzezinski – architect of the “secret” war in Afghanistan three decades ago – along with the appointment of James Rodney Schlesinger, CIA director and Secretary of Defense during the 1970s, to lead a senior-level task force on nuclear weapons suggests that the process of moving from a neo-con to a Trilateral approach is already underway. The prospect of a military showdown with Iran would decrease during an Obama presidency, but confrontations with Pakistan, China and Russia become more likely.
Faced with such harsh realities, some conclude that an Obama presidency is still preferable to the disaster that is likely with John McCain. Others contend that the evidence reinforces the need for a third party alternative. Both arguments have merit. Despite Carter’s surrender to Trilateral logic, his presidency was a necessary reprieve from morally and ideologically bankrupt Republican rule. And it’s certainly vital to look beyond the two-party monopoly, however long the road may be. But the truth is that, in Obama, a worried establishment has found the vessel through which they hope to restore international and domestic stability.
What do they hope to accomplish? Part of the agenda was revealed during an April meeting of the Trilateral Commission in Washington, DC. During panel discussions, the “suggestions” included increased foreign aid – especially for Africa, paying back UN dues, intervention on behalf of “financial institutions under stress,” and a more liberal immigration approach. On the other hand, there was much rationalizing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And what does Obama say? While he pledges to end the war in Iraq, he wants to leave behind a “residual” force of about 50,000 troops. He says his administration will emphasize diplomacy, yet describes Iran as a terrorist state and pledges to use “all elements of American power” to deal with it. “If we must use military force,” Obama told the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), “we are more likely to succeed, and will have far greater support at home and abroad, if we have exhausted our diplomatic efforts.”
As far as Afghanistan and Pakistan are concerned, he wants to send at least 10,000 more U.S. troops to reinforce the 36,000 already there, taking unilateral military action inside Pakistan if necessary, whether its government agrees or not. “This is a war that we have to win,” Obama explains. In Berlin last week, he called on Europe to provide more troops to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The size of the US military is likely to grow during an Obama presidency, and the projection of US force, combined with diplomatic carrots and sticks, will certainly continue.
Still, Obama’s Trilateral-influenced vision embraces reforms that may bring some relief from the theocratically-infused Bush approach. Supreme Court appointments will be more centrist, the health care system may improve, and some of the worst abuses of the Bush years could be rolled back. These are not insignificant changes, and the pragmatic wing of the establishment, rapidly shifting in Obama’s direction, seems to recognize that relief is essential if trust in government is to be restored.
As Huntington noted more than 30 years ago, “democratic distemper” makes allies nervous and enemies adventurous. “If American citizens challenge the authority of the American government, why shouldn’t unfriendly governments?” So, Obama – like Carter – can be useful in calming things down and re-establishing confidence in the legitimacy of the current political order. In short, he can reinforce the argument that “the system” still works. For those who want real change, he’s bound to be a disappointment. But perhaps, along the road to inevitable disillusionment, at least he may do a bit to ease the pain.