Former US President Jimmy Carter has made an impassioned defence of his administration’s foreign policy in the face of a flurry of references to “Carter syndrome” in the US media.
“Carter syndrome” is the term used by neo-conservative commentators to describe President Barack Obama’s perceived weakness in dealing with Iran, Russia, China and other real and potential threats. It derives mainly from the Carter administration’s failed attempt to rescue American hostages held in the US embassy in Tehran during the Iranian revolution of 1979.
An article in Foreign Policy last month likened Obama’s long deliberation on what course of action to take in Afghanistan to Carter’s “Jeffersonian” approach of restraint and withdrawal, to the point where it “is likely to haunt this administration as it haunted Carter’s, most fatefully when he rejected calls to let the shah of Iran launch a brutal crackdown to remain in power”.
In the latest edition of Foreign Policy, Carter says it was up to the shah to implement political reforms and that his administration’s policy in Iran was to help the shah do this “while preventing fanatical extremists from seizing power, but ultimately that could only be accomplished by the Iranians themselves”.
While acknowledging that the Tehran hostage crisis was the major cause of his defeat for re-election, “my decision “to refrain from military action – unless they harmed a hostage – proved to be well-advised. I could have ordered massive destruction in Iran with our mighty military power, but this would have resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent Iranians, and it is certain that our hostages would have been assassinated”.
Carter points out that as he served as president during the latter years of the Cold War, “mutual assured destruction from a nuclear exchange was an overriding factor in our dealings with the Soviet Union. To avoid a potentially catastrophic military confrontation, we engaged with the Soviets, from a position of strength, in negotiating SALT II in order to ensure constraints and shared reductions in our arsenals … I decided to modernise our deterrent capabilities, knowing that the United States had great advantages over the Soviet Union in nonmilitary competition. Accordingly, I decided to exploit these Soviet vulnerabilities, peacefully and quietly”.
One by one, he writes, his administration reached out to non-aligned countries, “promoting the attractive appeal of peace, freedom, democracy, and human rights. In these places, where US leaders of previous administrations had not been welcome, we established close and binding friendships, thereby weakening the Soviets”.
Defending his human rights policy, Carter writes that “most countries in Latin America were governed by personal despots or military juntas when I took office” but that he had abandoned “the long-standing US policy of supporting and protecting these friendly dictators in the face of human rights and indigenous movements, and within four years a large number of them had initiated procedures or pledged to permit democratic elections, prodded by us and the heroes brave enough to challenge the oppressive regimes. Soon, all of them became democracies.”
Carter stresses the importance of the Camp David Accords, where “we negotiated a resolution to the Palestinian issue and a treaty of peace between Egypt and Israel. Although written commitments to the Palestinians have not been honoured, not a word of the peace treaty has been broken. Tragically, there has been little if any real progress since that time.”
Carter seems proud that the United States did not become involved in military conflict during his presidency, but adds: “I do not consider this a sign of weakness or reason for apology. While maintaining the peace, for ourselves and many others, we greatly expanded our global influence and also protected the security, strength, ideals, and integrity of the United States.”
As last month’s Foreign Policy article mentions, however, Carter’s problem was that, however laudable his stance on human rights may have been, pursuing an ethical foreign policy while trying to protect American business interests at the same time was always going to be a difficult balancing act.
It was almost impossible to implement it impartially. Why, for instance, were Latin American dictatorships pursued by the US for human rights violations during the Carter years, while Saudi Arabia and other countries with similarly repressive regimes escaped scrutiny?
Still, Carter’s robust defence of his presidential record comes as a surprise, as he must surely be inured to criticism by now. Described by admirers as the best former president the United States has ever had, he has come under fire by detractors for alleged anti-semitism. In a book published three years ago (Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid), he said the overriding problem in the Middle East was that “for more than a quarter century, the actions of some Israeli leaders have been in direct conflict with the official policies of the United States, the international community, and their own negotiated agreements … Israeli government decisions are rarely questioned or condemned, voices from Jerusalem dominate in our media, and most American citizens are unaware of circumstances in the occupied territories…”
But Carter could hardly be accused of anti-semitism. In the late 1970s his administration, with Patricia Derian
as US assistant secretary of state for human rights, worked assiduously for the release of Jewish publisher Jacobo Timerman from clandestine imprisonment and torture by the former Argentine military regime.
Released in 1979, Timerman emigrated to Israel, but eventually returned to Argentina because he could not accept Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He died in Buenos Aires in 1999, and were he alive today, he would surely thank Carter for his freedom.