Perhaps this isn't the best day to defend Barack Obama's administration from the charge that it is Carterishly passive in its approach to vexing Middle East issues, but here I go anyway.
What prompts me is a cheap shot taken by Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency official, in a recent New York Times article about the various challenges facing Obama's new national security adviser, Susan Rice. The article, by Mark Landler, reads in part:
"Bruce O. Riedel, a former intelligence official who worked with Ms. Rice during the Clinton years, likened her predicament to that of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, who watched helplessly in 1979 as an Islamic revolution in Iran turned that country away from the United States for decades. 'Obama and Rice are in the same place as Jimmy Carter and Zbig Brzezinski were in 30 years ago,' Mr. Riedel said. 'You know that what's happening is extremely important, but you are a bystander to the big decisions. It's a really, really tough call because your leverage is minimal.'"
Well, no, Obama and Rice aren't at all in the same place Carter and Brzezinski were in. Riedel is comparing the situation in Egypt -- where the U.S. Embassy hasn't been seized, and where no American diplomats or soldiers are being held captive -- to a situation in Iran 34 years ago when Carter seemed impotent in the face of an obvious and humiliating assault on American power and sovereignty.
I've heard this analogy repeatedly in recent days: Obama is as powerless in the face of sudden change in the Middle East as Carter was three decades ago, but it just doesn't wash.
That's not to say that Obama has been particularly resolute in the face of Middle East turmoil. Just that it's plausible to argue that his aggressively noninterventionist approach to Syria and his confusing interventions in Egypt don't equate at all to Carter's failure to free American hostages from the seized embassy compound in Tehran. Things will have to get a lot worse for the U.S. in the Middle East -- and Obama will have to show himself to be much more hapless than he's been so far -- before the comparison to Carter is apt.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)