As a self-described grassroots democrat, I’m a big fan of former president, Jimmy Carter. I’ve contributed to his causes, I’ve even attended one of his Sunday School classes, defended him ardently in political arguments.
But lately I’ve begun considering something that has begun to deeply bothered for a couple years. It began when I read his own account of his Camp David peace process with leaders of Israel and Egypt. Specifically, it is an account that Mr. Carter himself writes: when the process had begun to stall irrevocably, he visited Sadat in private and told him that if he didni’t sign the accords, he (Mr. Carter) would no longer be his friend.
I’m not sure why it is given so much prominence in Jimmy Carter’s memoirs, but I’ve wondered if he isn’t, in fact, bragging a little. If he isn’t, at the very least, he considers it a pivotal moment in the signing of the peace agreement and nothing about which to be embarrassed.
I consider it important too, but for very different reasons. I think Jimmy Carter cheated at that moment. When it was apparent that the talks were about to fall apart and the conversations to yield nothing, he threatened Sadat: "you do what I want or you will no longer be my friend". At that split second, what could otherwise have been his crowning achievement was instead to be the moment when he was to arrogate his own role as "faithful guide" in the peace process and become its shaming parent, forcing Sadat to choose between fealty to the US president versus remaining true to the will (however disfunctional it was) of his countrymen. For better or for worse, Sadat acquiesed, and in the end, may have paid dearly with his life specifically for that decision.
While there is little comparison between that prior administration and that of George W Bush, the latter infinitely more opaque and forever confusing freedom with license, symptoms of the same thing do arise:
Several years ago, I watched George W. Bush giving a news conference. One of the reporters offered him a question, addressing the President as "sir". President Bush, in a very threatening tone, ordered the reporter that he was to follow protocol and call him "Mr. President". It was a very parental, threatening attack.
Where I come from, you rebuke those who are in a position subordinate to yours in private–man to man–while you praise them publicly. Instead, President Bush heaped humiliation and shame on the reporter in front of his peers. The lesson in the locker room was clear. Do it my way, or you wear the dunce cap.
Predictably, this leadership marched on: Iraqis were being tortured in Abu Graib. Yes, the torture certainly inflicted pain, but more than that, it heaped unfathomable shame and embarrassment on a nation whose pride had already taken a major hit or two for its leaders’ stupid mistakes. Turning over Sadam Hussein to his sworn enemies was another brazen act of inflicting shame on him and every Baathist Sunni who supported him. You do this, and look what’s going to happen to you. These weren’t disconnected instances, but were symptomatic of a coherent policy "mood" intended to inflict shame on those who would threaten American–or more specifically, neo-conservative–interests anywhere and at any time. It was behavior that lay outside the force of law and governance by agreement. It was deeply imbedded, instead, in the protocol of vicious personal attack and shame.
Washington wreaked of it.
Barack Obama has a unique opportunity. With soaring approval, both nationally and internationally, he has a chance to mend differences that few ever dream of having. But as a self-described Christian, and by association, among a group whose fatal weakness ever appears to be self-righteousness and self-service, relentlessly harsh judgement of other cultures as well as an eagerness to doll out endless heapfuls of shame on those who dare be different, he, too, faces the peril of falling prey to his own cultural weaknesses when the chips are down.
Is Barack Obama going to imperiously insist on getting his way? I mean, he is going to be the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. What personal price is he going to be willing to pay, though? Will he resort to inflicting shame on someone else llike a looming parent when facing the risk of losing a very specific, long-sought-after goal, his prize achievement?
In that moment, what will he decide to do?
I think he would do well to follow Ronald Reagan’s advice: "Don’t be afraid to see what you see." And I’d say, a good place to start would be looking at yourself.