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Jimmy Carter: How Not to Defend Your Legacy

Jimmy Carter: How Not to Defend Your Legacy

By Jeremy Lott - February 26, 2010

A recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine features two full body images of our 39th and 44th presidents, both walking toward the camera. Barack Obama is in full color; Jimmy Carter, in a very seventies-looking suit, in black and white. There is an equals sign between them (so Obama = Carter) with the caveat, “Well, maybe.”

The article, by historian Walter Russell Mead, titled “The Carter Syndrome,” was an analysis of various schools of American foreign policy and how they influence presidential decision making. It touched on Carter's legacy but didn't land many body blows. The title, and the end of the first paragraph – which warned that “the conflicting impulses that influence how this young leader thinks about the world threaten to tear his presidency apart” and quite possibly “turn him into a new Jimmy Carter” – were likely tacked on by the editors who needed to sex up the manuscript.

Carter's response was a textbook example for current and future ex-presidents of how not to manage your reputation. Normally, when a piece appears in a major media outlet that riles up a former U.S. president, he calls a few former aides, advisers, and sympathetic academics. They launch a coordinated attack on his behalf without ever quite admitting that they were put up to it. This creates the illusion of a groundswell of support for a venerable public figure and it allows the one time commander-in-chief to appear above the fray. Reporters will ask him about it and he can quote the experts who came to his defense.

That could have been the case here. Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote a response to Foreign Policy asserting that Carter's overall record was chalk full of undeniable “geopolitical accomplishments.” (Though Brzezinski admits that one of those “accomplishments,” the Salt II arms limitation treaty, had to be withdrawn from the Senate when the U.S.S.R. invaded Afghanistan.) It could have been joined by four or five other old foreign policy hands and Democratic eminences to bolster Carter's desired reputation for having made hard but good choices that ultimately worked to the country's benefit.

Instead, Carter decided to take matters into own hands. The results are not good. From first sentence to last, his letter demonstrates paper thin skin, arrogance, and the flawed judgment that turned him into a one-term president. He begins by stating that although he had “refrained from responding to gratuitous and incorrect analyses of my foreign policy” in the past, he now feels “compelled to comment” on a story “which the editors apparently accepted without checking the author's facts or giving me a chance to comment.” Me-ow.

Carter promises to limit the scope of his response. He won't, for instance, “criticize or correct [Mead's] cute and erroneous oversimplistic distortions of presidential biographies and history except when he refers specifically to me.” That doesn't stand in the way of his making grandiose or petty statements about his presidency that fail to convince or even pass the laugh test.

Take China. What president was responsible for opening up U.S.-China relations, driving a wedge between Communist China and Communist Russia? If you thought the answer was Richard Nixon, then Jimmy Carter has news for you. “Following 30 years of diplomatic relations with Taiwan as 'the One China,'” he writes, “I negotiated persistently...and was successful in reaching agreement in December 1978. This led to full relations with the People's Republic of China... This was a strategic turning point in U.S.-China relations that my predecessors had not been willing or able to consummate.”

Or take Iran. Some of the Iranian Islamic militants that Carter had allowed to take power seized the U.S. embassy in November, 1979 and held the Americans there hostage for 444 days, destroying Carter's presidency. Maybe, in retrospect, not backing Iran's strongman shah was a bad idea? Carter insists that his “policy in Iran was to make it possible for the shah to retain his leadership by urging him to adopt political reforms while preventing fanatical extremists from seizing power.” When that didn't work and the reformists took U.S. hostages, he made the wise decision “to refrain from military action -- unless they harmed a hostage.”

After all, he “could have ordered massive destruction in Iran with our mighty military power,” but this would have killed “thousands of innocent Iranians” and the lives of the hostages would likely have been forfeit. Instead, Carter negotiated “around the clock for the last three days I was in office, while President-elect Ronald Reagan and his advisors chose not to be involved or even informed about progress.” Carter complains that “they were finally permitted to depart immediately after I was no longer in office,” but doesn't really understand why that happened. He thinks it was a result of his tireless efforts rather than the Ayatollahs' fear of what Reagan might do.

He never mentions a third option between negotiation and bombardment, probably because it would reflect badly on him. Carter actually approved a special forces mission to rescue the hostages - but insisted it be so small that technical difficulties forced would-be rescuers to return home empty handed.

Of the U.S.S.R.'s invasion of Afghanistan, Carter insists he “had no hesitation in providing weapons to the Afghan resistance after the Soviet invasion in December 1979.” True. But watch the movie Charlie Wilson's War. Under Carter, U.S. policy in Afghanistan was not to repel the Soviet Union but to give the communists their very own Vietnam. Actually rolling back communist advances was a project that was undertaken by conservative Democrats in Congress and a conservative Republican in the White House.

The facts are clear enough in all of these cases. It's surprising that Carter would revisit the controversies now. Mead, in the article and response, took it easy on the ex-president -- who he confessed to having voted for in 1980. It's a good bet that other critics will not be so restrained.

Jeremy Lott is an editor for RealClearPolitics and author of The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.

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