If Only Obama Were as Tough as Carter

Jimmy Carter's foreign policy wasn't bad—and Barack Obama's is terrible.

The current tumult gripping Ukraine prompted George F. Will to write that President Obama’s performance in handling the crisis was comparable to former President Jimmy Carter’s responses to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iran hostage crisis, labeling Obama’s response his “Jimmy Carter moment.” Carter has long been a political punching bag in Republican circles, and his foreign-policy record has since become synonymous with American global weakness. Even the last Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, couldn’t help but to indulge in the Obama-Carter comparison, sardonically referring to the Carter years as the “good old days” when contrasted with the Obama presidency.

In 1980, the U.S. faced an energy crisis, inflation, high unemployment, and a seemingly perpetual hostage crisis that damaged Carter’s credibility with the American public and understandably weakened his reelection prospects. Carter even endured a bitter primary challenge to his left from Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy, a contest that played out all the way to the Democratic National Convention. Incumbent presidents facing formidable intraparty opposition in primary season, a rare occurrence in American politics, tend not to fare so well in general elections. Carter was no exception. Ronald Reagan profited tremendously from the widespread disillusionment emanating from Carter’s own party and rode the wave of discontent all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, winning forty-four states in the process, a tally greater than FDR’s victory over Herbert Hoover in 1932.

Upon closer examination, however, the caricature of the Carter foreign policy that has endured since he left office willfully neglects his contributions to the lasting Egyptian-Israeli peace and his firm enunciation of the Carter Doctrine in his 1980 State of the Union Address, both of which projected strength and a serious regard for U.S. interests, as opposed to weakness. In a process that began in the Nixon and Ford administrations with Secretary of State Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” and the Sinai I and Sinai II agreements, Carter entered office hoping to capitalize on his predecessors’ diplomatic accomplishments and to cement a durable, permanent peace between Egypt and Israel, as well as bringing the former solidly into the U.S. sphere of influence and, as a result, further away from the Soviet Union. Additionally, Carter never strove publicly to be more Israeli than the Israelis themselves, a standard that, for the most part, has been observed by every president since.

Despite his oftentimes soaring rhetoric on democracy and human rights, Carter approached the then stalled Egyptian-Israeli peace talks soberly, realistically and in the context of the Cold War. He understood that a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, while desirable, was not something that could be achieved overnight, or even during his own presidency. Instead, Carter diligently focused on securing a bilateral peace accord between Egypt and Israel, one that would end the cycle of war between the two countries and bolster U.S. interests in the region by formally bringing Egypt into the American camp, a prospect all the more profound in light of the political turmoil that was sweeping across Iran and threatening the Shah’s rule at that time.

When negotiations convened at Camp David in September 1978, Carter patiently mediated between two intransigent prima donnas: Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. Begin, upon becoming prime minister the previous year, had called Sadat an “implacable enemy” of Israel. Yet over thirteen days of tense negotiation, Begin’s myriad caveats for any potential peace, endless threats of a walkout from both sides, and the lack of consensus within the Egyptian delegation on a variety of specific proposals, what emerged were the Camp David Accords that was largely the product of Carter’s own perseverance. Substantive parts of the Accords would go on to be finalized in a bilateral peace treaty the following March. The Camp David success and the ensuing thirty-five years of normalized relations between Israel and Egypt owe more to Carter than history or Republicans have been willing to admit. At Camp David, Carter didn’t stress democratization or human rights in Egypt, a final resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian quandary, or a utopian peace between Arab and Jew. He mediated the negotiations as a realist with a keen eye toward U.S. interests, a fact which shouldn’t be so readily dismissed by his critics.

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