February 12, 2005

Why Do We Listen To Carter, Again? (tip to Pejmanesque)

Jimmy Carter congratulated the Iraqis on their successful free elections... ten days late. Hey, thanks Jimmy! We really needed to hear that from you. Did you want to maybe congratulate the South for desegregating? Maybe send a telegram of warm wishes to Truman for winning World War II? I think Jesus could use some kudos for being born to a virgin mother, as long you're sending out belated congratulations.

This was not a slip. This is not a forgetful mistake. He has a staff that is on top of these things, and he's been commenting quite publicly about the election. He waited this long to make a point, or at least because he was embarrassed/ashamed. After all, President Carter said that the elections would be a failure, that they would be illegitimate and unrepresentative, and he called Iraq a quagmire. He admitted that he was wrong about the election - how long until he has to admit Iraq was a good policy on the part of Bush? Maybe never, but no doubt the prospect is frightening to many on the left.

So why is Jimmy even considered a credible resource for foreign policy? He was a peanut farmer, a Southern Governor and flirted with the segregationists and Wallace-lovers; he came to the White House with barely any foreign policy knowledge.

Then in office, let's see, he managed to buddy up to the Shah, one of the more brutal and despotic dictators in the non-Communist world, and also one of the least popular domestically. In a fit of ironic mis-prediction (not unlike his January 19th criticism of the pending Iraqi election), Carter called the Shah an island of stability... less than a year before the Islamic Revolution installed Khomeini in place.

The Shah was a pretty horrible despot, relying on secret police and disappearances to maintain his rule (monarchs are not very popular to many Muslims). Did we encourage him to side with democracy? After all, Carter was supposed to be the human rights President, so did he urge the Shah to free political prisoners and allow for dissent? No, we let the Shah do as he would and even suggested tightening his grip. Of course, as a result the radicals, the crazies, the Marxists and the liberals, the moderates and the democrats all sided against the US and supported a Revolution. Did Carter, now chastised, disavow the Shah? No, we admitted him to the US so that the Shah could seek treatment for cancer - thereby giving him de facto immunity from prosecution in Iran and pissing off the Iranian radicals into taking over the US Embassy. Good move, Jimmy.

Yeah, he sounds like a GREAT foreign policy President, and a totally consistent human rights leader. So what did the Master Diplomat do to resolve this? Smooth talking? Aid package? Go to war? Well, first they did the standard stuff, like freezing assets, expelling Iranian nationals from the country and even an embargo on Iranian oil. Then he launched a rescue mission that ended up killing eight US soldiers and wounding several more - and causing the SecState, who was opposed to the mission, to resign.

The Iranians had three demands - 1) return the Shah so he could stand trial, 2) apologize for certain US actions to and in Iran (like the entirely successful but ultimately disastrous ouster of Iranian PM Mossadegh in the '50s, who was himself something of an autocoup tyrant) and 3) pledge not to interfere again. Obviously we couldn't agree to these, since that mindset at the time (not unreasonable) was that admitting fault in one area might hurt our cause overall. But the larger issue: if you negotiate with terrorists, then you create an incentive for terrorists to exist and perform their cruel acts.

So although the three demands were out of hand fairly reasonable - let a dictator be tried (though possibly in an unfair trial), apologize for secretly altering the government of another country (let our interventions be done with openness, honesty and nobility or not at all) and pledge to let a people run their own affairs in the future. But doing so at the behest of terrorists, thugs and monsters would only create an incentive for people the world over to prey on Americans for personal and national profit or gain. And Carter was barely imposing enough to fight off a mildly pugnacious rabbit, let alone violent Islamists, Communists and nationalists the world over. Although, to completely contradict myself here, the hostages were eventually released in exchange for unfreezing Iran's assets; we did in fact negotiate with the terrorists.

What I find interesting about typical US foreign policy toward dictators is when we will side with dictators. An alliance with a dictator is presented as a meeting of interests in a larger struggle and the idea of values is dismissed as quaint, bourgeois or even wimpy. But then when these dictators clearly hurt our interests and are a much bigger hindrance than assistance, we stubbornly cling to them. It's interesting that we'll display surprising loyalty to doomed dictators but surprising disregard to democracy and freedom even when it's in our long-term interest. I mean, if we care about people seeing us as loyal to even our embattled and discredited dictatorial allies, why don't we care about them seeing us as loyal to freedom? Obviously this is a generalization, but I think it bears entirely too much resemblance to the truth, oftentimes.

Now, as to Jimmy - obviously Iran was a big failure, but no doubt he had other successes, right? After all, everybody makes mistakes, and Iran was a difficult case (if you leave out the potential to support democratic reformers). Well there was his big stand on the invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets went in, so Jimmy pulled us out of the 1980 Olympics. Scary. That'll show 'em, Jimmy! Nobody selectively observes human rights like the Carter administration; so THERE!

Now, to be fair, Carter did make some important strides in criticizing traditional allies - Stroessner in Paraguay, Pinochet in Chile, apartheid policies in South Africa, and elections in then-Rhodesia. He also ended support of the anti-socialist, dictatorial Somoza government in Nicaragua... thereby allowing the pro-socialist, dictatorial Ortega government into power. But to people who had to deal with the Shah, none of this is very comforting.

What other bright ideas did they do? Well they started the program to give $40 billion to mujahidin in Afghanistan, which may have contributed to the collapse of the USSR and which Reagan enthusiastically continued. Of course, that's probably also the reason why the Taliban managed to take over the country in 1996 and support Osama and Al Qaida. In retrospect, this was not a great idea. However, a lot of people didn't see this coming, so we'll move on and see if this is also a forgivable error.

What good things did Jimmy do? SALT II - arms control. He got it signed despite bumpy relations with the Soviets. Of course, both sides wanted the reduction anyway, since it was too expensive to keep so many missiles around. SALT II was never ratified by the Senate, though we honored its terms regardless. If this is an accomplishment then in fairness Iran, Afghanistan and others are failures, so at best it's a wash for Jimmy.

Panama Canal. It was officially negotiated away under Carter, but the Panamanians had been trying to renegotiate it basically since the initial treaty in 1903. Kissinger had laid most of the groundwork for the treaty before Carter came into office. The Panamanians broke off relations in 1964, demanding a renegotiation of the Canal. So this is probably a good thing, but it was set in motion well before Jimmy - not much to blame or to credit him over here.

The Camp David Accords. He negotiated peace in the Middle East. This is important, but a lot of factors were beyond Carter's control or were the opposite of what he initially set out to do. It's really Anwar Sadat who deserves the lion's share of the credit. It was his trip to Israel - the first Arab leader to do so, thereby recognizing Israel's right to exist - that got things moving. He was assassinated for it (ironically by Islamists, since Sadat was fairly Islamist-oriented compared to his colleagues in the Free Officers government). The treaty and negotiations were successful largely because 1) Sadat desperately needed aid for the failing Egyptian economy (an example of the stupidity of the command-oriented, import-substitution/industrialization development model favored by so many leftists and Third World countries), 2) because he more or less completely ignored the Palestinian issues of the West Bank and settlers, and 3) because it was narrowed from four countries to two, ignoring peace with Syria and Jordan.

The original idea was to get Egypt, Jordan, Syria, the Palestinians and Israel to agree on a comprehensive peace between both sides that would end the violence. Bilateral talks were better than Carter's preferred multilats, since it sped up the process and didn't gang up on Israel. The Palestinians were invited, and settlers and the West Bank were discussed. Carter cut them from the treaty because Begin and Sadat could not agree on the issue.

Begin agreed to the accord because it would split apart the Arab states and would neutralize a long-term enemy. Sadat agreed to the accord because it would give his country a rest from getting its ass kicked by Israel and would provide a much-needed infusion of US dollars. It's not like Jimmy smooth-talked 'em into dropping their guns; they each had very good reasons for the accord, entirely independent of Carter or of any administration in Washington.

He did provide the leadership for the accord, which is both laudable and important. But we should not assume that he has some special insight into peace, human rights or foreign policy just because a minority portion of his intended Middle East peace proposal survived the process.

The Camp David Accords are sort of like setting off to win a decathlon and coming back with a medal for the hundred meter dash but calling it a success anyway. It was supposed to be all inclusive and solve the whole problem in one step. If anything, it just served to further radicalize the already dangerous Palestinian element, and to further alienate Palestinian terrorists from more stability-oriented Arab governments.

So yeah, by dropping Syria and Jordan from the talks, and then by dropping the entire issue of Palestinians, the West Bank and settlers, Carter was able to convince two leaders that already wanted peace for their own national reasons that they should have peace. Not so stunning of an achievement for Carter, although a good move for the world.

Overall, a fairly poor record for Carter's foreign policy - marked by incompetence, inconsistency and exaggerated accomplishments. I think it's time for people to stop listening to President Carter on anything unrelated to two-by-fours and cheap drywall.

Homer Simpson: C'mon Carter, build us a house, you lazy bum.


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