To Hell in a Handbasket

Carter, Obama, and the 'Arab Spring'

by Ruthie Blum

RVP, 212pp., $17.95

Ruthie Blum, former columnist and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post, is not optimistic about the Arab Spring and what it means for American interests and allies in the Middle East, Arabs as well as Israelis. Nor does she believe that many Americans or our elected officials understand the consequences of the struggle, consequences that may in turn affect our way of life. In To Hell in a Handbasket, a well-reported and researched and elegantly written book, Blum argues that the outcome of these recent political upheavals may prove “to be more like that of the Iranian Revolution than the American one.”

Blum sees a straight line between the 1979 Islamic Revolution, that toppled the Shah of Iran and brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power, and the recent uprisings that have brought down Arab rulers (including longstanding American allies such as Hosni Mubarak) in favor of Islamist parties. The similarities connecting the two episodes, Blum argues, are manifold. First, there are the region’s own political energies, where the Islamist movement, even if it does not necessarily represent the majority, has the advantage over secular, or liberal, parties. In Iran the Khomeinists, and in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood, were not simply better organized than the competition; they were prepared to push their agenda through any means necessary when the time was ripe.

And yet, both the Khomeinists and the Brotherhood only employed a minimum amount of violence in their revolutionary capture of power. What facilitated their ascent in both cases, Blum argues, was the foreign policy of the president of the United States. As Blum writes: “While it was Jimmy Carter who opened the door to this radicalism in Iran three decades ago, it is Barack Obama whose policies are laying out the welcome mat for it to flourish in the rest of the Middle East today.”

The first, and longest, part of Hell in a Handbasket is a detailed account of the Khomeinist takeover in Iran, the American response, and the hostage crisis that crippled Carter and ended his presidency. The revolution took American policymakers by surprise, but shouldn’t have, writes Blum, since American allies knew that something was brewing: “I didn’t know what, but I knew it would be substantial,” Israel’s last ambassador to Iran, Uri Lubrani, told Blum. “Later the Americans interrogated me to find out where I had gotten my information, and I couldn’t explain to them that it was an accumulation of information, experience, and feelings. Intelligence services don’t like this, because they want proof of everything.”

In fact, there was evidence of imminent danger, documented in Khomeini’s own writings. As Blum explains, Bernard Lewis at Princeton had read the Ayatollah’s works and concluded that he represented a very serious problem, for Iran and the United States. Lewis tells Blum how, in 1978, he tried to publish an op-ed about Khomeini’s writings in the New York Times, but the editors couldn’t certify the authenticity of the books under discussion. Neither could the CIA, which assumed the writings were part of a disinformation campaign meant to make Khomeini look bad!

If American officials were unprepared for the revolution, the immediate aftermath made plain American policymakers’ post-Vietnam lack of resolve. When Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979, and took hostages, the Carter administration was flummoxed. Even as the president ordered plans to be drawn up for a rescue attempt, the men tasked to carry out the prospective operation never believed it would come to pass.

William “Jerry” Boykin, who would later command Delta Force, was at the time one of the outfit’s operators and tells Blum that his unit lacked faith in the president: “We trained with intensity and passion and great hope, but not with expectations,” he explained. "As the months went on, we reached the point at which we didn’t believe Carter would launch the operation.” When Carter finally gave the order in April 1980, Operation Eagle Claw ended in catastrophe, with a helicopter crash, eight American soldiers dead in the Iranian desert -- and the hostages still held captive by the Islamic Republic.

The hostage crisis ended with Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, but as Blum points out, “the five presidents in the White House since then”—Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—“faced the consequences of Carter’s policies.”

It is the last name in the series that occupies the second part of To Hell in a Handbasket, and Blum argues that Obama doesn’t really understand the 30-year war that he’s inherited. Focusing on his 2009 Cairo speech, Blum writes that the president has evinced a Carter-like disposition, “showing the rest of the world that he understood their gripes against America, and that he would listen and learn from them.”

Like her father Norman Podhoretz, author of World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, Ruthie Blum sees the current landscape as a civilizational war, not between the West and Islam but, rather, between the values sustaining the United States and other Western nations, including Israel, and Islamic fundamentalism. For Blum, then, the Arab uprisings that empowered Islamist parties “poses a serious threat to the very ideals that the United States and Europe insist are at its root.”

If our claim on those ideals is to have any validity, Blum concludes, we will have to reassert them in a few months. “When Americans go to the polls in November 2012,” she writes, “they will have a serious choice to make: whether to adhere to Obama’s dim view of American greatness, or to reclaim their place as beacons for the rest of the world—and as saviors for those who would emulate that light if given a genuine chance to do so.”

Lee Smith is a senior editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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