Thank You, Jimmy Carter

Restoring the reputation of America’s most underrated foreign-policy president.

Joan Wong illustration for Foreign Policy; David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images/Dirck Halstead/Liaison via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images/Corbis via Getty Images
Joan Wong illustration for Foreign Policy; David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images/Dirck Halstead/Liaison via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images/Corbis via Getty Images

When the historian Walter Russell Mead in a Foreign Policy article published in early 2010, sought to criticize the Obama administration and warn it against the risks of “weakness and indecision” and “incoherence and reversals,” the essay’s headline evoked the threat of a “Carter syndrome.” The meaning was clear: a damning allusion to President Jimmy Carter’s famously weak foreign-policy record.

But there was a problem with Mead’s comparison: The conventional wisdom about Carter is wrong. Far from the feckless leader he’s often portrayed as today, Carter racked up more tangible successes in just four years than most other presidents have in eight.

Consider the global situation that Carter bequeathed to Ronald Reagan when he left office in January 1981. Through assertive diplomacy, the outgoing president had dramatically improved America’s global image, then still suffering from the fallout of Vietnam. The Panama Canal treaties — which Reagan strongly opposed — had removed an explosive source of irritation from Washington’s relations with Latin America. Carter’s breakthrough at Camp David, where he brokered a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, had helped stabilize the Middle East. Carter had also managed to establish formal diplomatic relations with Beijing — an achievement a Republican president would have found difficult to manage, given the sway the Taiwan lobby then held over the party’s ranks.

Perhaps the strongest praise for Carter’s legacy came, indirectly, from Reagan himself. Despite having criticized Carter’s late-term policies toward the Soviet Union, not only did Reagan maintain them once taking office — he expanded them. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Carter increased the defense budget and embraced a sturdier defense posture, for one, by stationing medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe to match Moscow’s own. Reagan also adopted Carter’s policies of supporting the Afghan mujahideen and imposing sanctions on the trade of advanced technologies with Russia. Like Carter, he also insisted on the implementation of the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords, which had been signed by President Gerald Ford in 1975. And Reagan ultimately abided by the terms of the SALT II arms control treaty, though he opposed it during his own presidential bid and it was never ratified by the Senate.

Many of Carter’s successes were the result of courageous decisions that required the commitment of immense political capital and proved costly in electoral terms. Nearly one-third of the Senate voted against the ratification of the Panama Canal treaties, for example. And Carter’s administration wasn’t just brave; it was also unusually scandal-free, particularly when compared with Richard Nixon’s (Watergate) or Reagan’s (the Iran-Contra affair).

To be sure, Carter’s record on human rights was decidedly mixed. His administration did reorient U.S. foreign policy by giving unprecedented attention to the issue, promoting the civil rights activist Patricia Derian to the position of assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, for example, and creating a global issues cluster within the National Security Council, led by National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, to address nontraditional security policies. The Carter administration also succeeded in helping to free political prisoners around the world and challenge repression in Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru.

But Carter’s team learned the hard way that it was much easier to push for human rights in small authoritarian countries allied with the United States than in communist states. And his administration was confronted by some hard trade-offs between U.S. interests and moral values, nowhere more so than in Cambodia. At the time, China — then seen as a useful hedge against the Soviets — supported the criminal Khmer Rouge regime against Vietnam. To keep Beijing cooperative, Carter ultimately avoided criticizing the murderous behavior of Pol Pot’s government.

Despite Carter’s focus on the failings of U.S. allies, his human rights agenda had a destabilizing impact on his primary adversary, the Soviet leadership. The Kremlin was irritated and dismayed when it realized that Carter was intent on using the Helsinki agreements to empower Soviet dissidents and thus undermine Soviet rule. A recently declassified U.S. intelligence report from 1978 indicates that the Soviets had been hoping for a Ford victory in 1976. They had counted on continuing the direct secret discussions they had held with Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger — discussions that mostly bracketed human rights concerns and that Moscow counted among its greatest postwar successes.

Given all this, what explains Carter’s sorry reputation today? The image of weakness was created by a handful of key security decisions made during the first two years of his presidency. These included withdrawing nuclear weapons and some troops from South Korea, deciding to end the B-1 bomber program in June 1977, and stopping the production of the neutron bomb in April 1978. Carter had solid reasons for making each of these choices, but he failed to anticipate the overall effect they would have on his reputation.

That’s despite having made many farsighted decisions on defense policy. These included supporting the development of cruise missiles, decreasing U.S. reliance on land-based intercontinental Minuteman missiles (which were relatively vulnerable to Soviet strikes), and modernizing the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-armed Trident submarines. Carter also approved policies that proved critical for U.S. wars in the 1990s and 2000s, including financing the next generation of stealth bombers, creating the Carter Doctrine (which guaranteed U.S. military hegemony in the Persian Gulf), and forming a Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force that later became the basis for U.S. Central Command, the Defense Department’s unified command for the Middle East.

Of course, the Carter administration did suffer several unmistakable failures. One was the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s authoritarian but pro-American government by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamist and violently anti-Western regime in Iran. Then came the interminable humiliation of the Iran hostage crisis, when U.S. diplomats and citizens were held captive for 444 days. In April 1980, the disastrous and deadly end of Operation Eagle Claw, a military raid designed to free the hostages, increased the perception of America’s — and Carter’s own — weakness. (Though it was Carter, not Reagan, who ultimately freed the hostages through diplomatic means.) And then, of course, came Carter’s electoral defeat in November 1980, which cast a pall of failure over his entire balance sheet.

The other general explanation for Carter’s poor reputation today is his persistent inability to explain and promote his administration’s decisions and achievements. The president and his team set maximally ambitious goals, such as eliminating nuclear weapons. Although they met a good number of them, they didn’t achieve them all — or at least not as fully as they had promised. The result, inevitably, was disappointment. The rhetoric of human rights, even without hyperbole, contributed to the disillusionment when inevitable compromises had to be made between values and national security. The same phenomenon of backing down from overly optimistic declarations was evident in the administration’s reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (described by Carter as “the most serious threat to world peace since the Second World War” but followed by largely symbolic retaliatory measures, such as boycotting the Olympic Games). And by promising to concentrate on freeing the hostages in Iran rather than campaigning for re-election (the Rose Garden strategy), Carter allowed the crisis to hold him hostage as well — only highlighting his apparent helplessness.

But these failures can ultimately be attributed to a poor communications strategy and a troubled geopolitical environment. The substance of the Carter administration’s foreign policy, by contrast, should be celebrated. And comparisons to his legacy should be anything but an insult.

This article — an adapted excerpt from Zbigniew Brzezinski: America’s Grand Strategist — originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Foreign Policy magazine. 

Justin Vaïsse is the founder and director-general of the Paris Peace Forum and the author, most recently, of Zbigniew Brzezinski: America’s Grand Strategist. Twitter: @JustinVaisse

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