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.
In 1980, Carter drew a carefully considered red line in the Persian Gulf in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, the advent of Islamic fundamentalism, and the Soviet Union’s incursion into Afghanistan. The fall of the Shah, the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and the uncertainty surrounding the true regional intentions of the USSR necessitated a new strategic doctrine that crystallized what the U.S. would in fact deem intolerable behavior. As Carter stated:
“An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
Critics accused the Carter administration of offering what amounted to mere bluster and for not possessing the wherewithal to effectively enforce the new doctrine. Yet the Soviet Union dared not violate the clear red line set by Carter and the free flow of oil in the Persian Gulf was indeed preserved during his tenure as president and beyond. Subsequent administrations would go on to disingenuously, and sometimes dangerously, expand the scope of the Carter Doctrine, but its original purpose was prudently designed and certainly warranted.
It’s hard to imagine that if the roles were reversed, Ronald Reagan would have responded any differently than Carter did to the Iran hostage crisis. Yet the event would come to symbolize, understandably, all that was wrong with the Carter presidency. Any president, however, would have understood that with the lives of over fifty Americans in the balance, statements and actions needed to proceed in a delicate manner. Operation Eagle Claw, the attempted rescue mission that ended in tragedy in the Iranian desert, was poorly planned, and Carter rightly assumed full responsibility for its failure. But Carter remained committed to securing the release of the hostages, even working the various diplomatic channels on the very day of Reagan’s inauguration. To humiliate Carter even further, the Iranians didn’t release the hostages until after Reagan was officially sworn-in. If it was Reagan who had been president and Carter was the one set to be inaugurated, it’s conceivable that the Iranians would have acted in much the same manner, as humiliating the U.S. for its four decades of coddling the Shah, rather than embarrassing a specific president, was the real intent in Tehran.
Therefore, Obama is not Jimmy Carter. Nor has he suffered a “Jimmy Carter moment.” Can anyone really imagine Obama leaving the back nine and exhibiting the kind of patience, attention to detail, nuance, and determination that Carter employed at Camp David and that a hypothetical Israeli-Palestinian peace accord would demand? Menachem Begin was more of naturally intractable figure than Bibi Netanyahu could ever aspire to be, and still, Carter was able to broker a monumental peace accord between two bitter adversaries whose nations had fought against each other in four major wars, as well as the War of Attrition, in a span of just twenty-five years. In addition to the Camp David breakthrough, Carter drew a red line in the Persian Gulf that was then stringently respected by the other major powers. International actors today contravene Obama’s ill-conceived red lines at will. Instead of disparaging Carter’s foreign policy to attack Obama’s, Republicans should hope that Obama, in the final two years of his second term, acts more like Carter, who was intensely focused on diplomacy and U.S. grand strategy, and less like the Obama of the last five years. Carter didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize for his exhaustive efforts in securing a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Obama won one solely for a series of high profile speeches he delivered, first on the campaign trail in 2008 and then during his honeymoon period as president. That is ironic. The significant role that Carter played at Camp David did more to both advance the cause of peace and strengthen U.S. national interests than any lofty Obama speech ever has.
Zane Albayati is a writer based in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter: @zanealbayati04.