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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Convention-al Wisdom: Carter's Foreign Policy

Laura Rozen, a freelance journalist who sometimes writes for the The American Prospect and who is covering the Democratic National Convention, wrote this on her blog earlier this week:
"I kind of knew this was not my natural habitat when the convention audience gave a rousing heartfelt standing ovation to Jimmy Carter, just as he was taking the podium. I think Carter has done many admirable things in terms of democracy and peace promotion, but his presidency was a disaster and just what Kerry does not want to be associated with -- foreign policy impotence, essentially."
Other bloggers (especially on the right), and apparently someone on MSNBC (and of course Fox) said much the same.

I know the common perception is that Carter's presidency was a disaster, but I'm going to briefly challenge the idea that his foreign policy was impotent (and disastrous).

First, a quick list of his accomplishments:
*** Carter elevated human rights towards the top of the US foreign policy agenda. This probably helped topple some brutal dictatorships. Carter is often blamed by the right for helping to bring the Sandanistas to power in Nicaragua, so he should perhaps by credited for helping end the martial law imposed by Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Arguably, the human rights emphasis encouraged the Solidarity movement in Poland, which presaged the collapse of the Soviet empire. In 1980, Carter warned the Soviets not to invade Poland.

*** Carter personally brokered the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt (significant, given the wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973), which included the return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt and established a useful framework for future Middle East peace negotiations.

*** Carter engineered the concluding episodes of the Panama Canal Treaty, which has been a huge success. The canal handover ended a long legacy of US colonialism.

*** Carter granted diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China.

*** Carter negotiated the SALT II arms treaty. Reagan called it "fatally flawed," but the US complied with its terms for most of his presidency.
Obviously, some of these events are interpreted differently by the left and the right, but I would suggest they certainly dispel any notion of "impotence."

If your take on foreign policy is hawkish, I could add some other accomplishments.
*** Carter moved forward on most of the strategic weapons systems that are often associated with the presidency of Ronald Reagan: the MX missile, Trident submarine, Pershing II missiles for Europe, etc.

*** Carter announced the Carter Doctrine in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The US would, he declared, use military force to protect oil interests in the Persian Gulf. Arguably, George Bush enforced this very doctrine in the 1991 Gulf War.

Carter reinstated draft registration, which continues today. If the US needed a draft in a national emergency, registration undoubtedly saves weeks, if not months of preparation.
Now I personally opposed most of the Carter-Reagan strategic arms decisions and would have preferred alternative energy investment to the huge military spending in the Gulf region, but a lot of hawkish critics of Carter embrace all these things. I don't think this is what Rozen had in mind when she wrote about Carter's alleged disastrous presidency and impotent foreign policy.

So what are the alleged failings?

1. Iran: Carter's presidency suffered tremendous damage from the fall of the Shah and the lengthy hostage crisis. The "Rose Garden" strategy made it seem as if Carter was hiding behind White House walls as 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. A bold rescue attempt failed and the ABC TV program "Nightline" provided a daily reminder of the "Hostage Crisis, Day xxx."

What can I say about this disaster?

Well, former University of Kansas debater and Reagan National Security Council staffmember Gary Sick has alleged that the Reagan-Bush campaign interfered with Carter's diplomacy by secretly negotiating with Iranian militants to delay the release of the hostages until after the election.

If true, and I realize that this was all played out more than a decade ago, the Reagan-Bush actions would certainly undercut the idea of Carter "impotence" and shift the blame for the disaster, eh?

At minimum, it is clear that Republicans stole Carter's debate briefing books. A congressional investigation found that William Casey (soon to be CIA director) "was receiving highly classified reports on closely held Carter administration intelligence on the Carter campaign and the Democratic president's efforts to liberate the hostages."

Regardless of all this "inside baseball," the Shah was a brutal dictator supported by the US after being installed by the CIA in 1953. Carter didn't topple him and didn't act to stop his being toppled.

Few critics say exactly what they would have done differently. The Reagan administration demonized Iran and buddied up to Saddam Hussein. Which act was worse?

2. I suppose that many blame Carter for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but I think there is very little evidence that US policy affected this decision one way or the other. Of course, many analysts see this Soviet decision as the beginning of the end of the red empire. US support for the Afghani resistance, initiated by Carter, bogged down the regime for a decade. The Bush and Clinton administration's failure to help Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew helped allow the Taliban to come to power.

3. Could Rozen have been thinking of the Muriel boatlift from Cuba? I doubt it. The right criticizes Carter for letting Castro to unload thousands of criminals from Cuba into the US, but 125,000 Cubans were allowed to leave Cuba in April 1980.

In fact, Castro apparently sent only about 2750 criminals (the number includes some who were mentally ill and otherwise "undesirable") to the US and nearly 1400 of those were repatriated in 1984.

What US President would have turned down more than 100,000 Cuban refugees?

4. Left-wing critics of Carter sometimes say he was a hypocrite on human rights, failing to act in places like Indonesia and Cambodia. Carter basically just continued longstanding US policies that didn't change much under Reagan.

While I certainly wish Carter had behaved quite differently towards these states, I doubt this is what Rozen had in mind.

In sum, I just don't see a case for foreign policy impotence and there's frankly not much of a case for disaster either.

After all, there were some major successes.

How would we think of the Middle East today if Egypt and Israel had fought another war or two in the last quarter century? What if Panama had exploded? Would the Soviet Union still exist if the US hadn't started to emphasize human rights in its foreign policy and Solidarity hadn't taken hold?

And of course, Carter has been an exceptional public servant in the past 20 years, though the Carter Center, Habitat for Humanity, etc. Didn't he win a major prize for some of those efforts?

He was a terrific choice to speak at the Democratic National Convention.

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