Jimmy Carter: The Indecisive Hawk


Reflecting on the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the conservative commentator, Victor Lasky, wrote:

“Rarely in the history of the Republic has there been an occupant of the Oval Office who demonstrated so quickly an inability to conduct even the simplest affairs of state.”

While this may be an excessively harsh assessment (Lasky was known as a conservative firebrand in his day), it is more apt than the Carter apologists today care to admit. Lasky’s statement is essential to understanding the Carter presidency. After all, many of Carter’s critics (even some of his fellow travelers on the Left) believe that Carter was a weak president. But, this is a flawed view of Jimmy Carter.

Far from being weak, Carter routinely exhibited a hawkishness that would have resonated with even the most fiery neoconservative today (indeed, future neocon leaders, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Charles Krauthammer–among others–had served in the Carter Administration).

The problem with Carter was not that he weak, as in dovish. Far from it. The problem with former President Carter was that he was indecisive.

President Carter: The White House Years

Stuart E. Eizenstat recently released a staggering 900-page history of his time working as a presidential aide during the Carter Administration. Eizenstat’s take on the Carter presidency is painfully sympathetic. However, the one thing that the reader cannot take away is that Carter was a weak man. Instead–much to Eizenstat’s credit–Carter is described as, at times, being “pedantic” and “priggish,” while reminding Eizenstat of his “elementary school teacher.”

Though only a one-term president, Jimmy Carter’s time in office was a deeply important point in American history. At once, covering the period of time in which the nation attempted to forget about the hellish Vietnam War, while at the same time tried to move beyond the Watergate scandal, Carter’s presidency is one of those pivot points in American history.

It was also essential for moving the country into the far more dynamic 1980s. Carter’s presidency is as much defined by the decisions he failed to make as it was by the decisions he did–however begrudgingly–make.

Everything from the selection of Paul Volcker, the notoriously hawkish Federal Reserve chairman, who vowed to beat inflation out of the market through abnormally high interest rates, to Carter’s commitment to standing opposed to Soviet adventurism throughout what Andrew J. Bacevich refers to as the “Greater Middle East,” Carter took stubbornness to almost (despite being Southern Baptist) Calvinistic levels. And, both he and the country paid–and continue to pay–for his quixotic behavior.

A Very Confused Cold Warrior

When he assumed office, Jimmy Carter insisted that he would normalize relations with the Soviet Union. He inartfully argued that Americans were possessed of an “inordinate” fear of Communism (and the Soviet Union). Yet, he was quite hawkish in certain areas when it came to Soviet irredentism–and he had no problem allowing for the development of policies or systems that would ratchet up tensions in the Cold War rather than ameliorate them.

In fact, Carter, a former Navy man who had served under the notorious taskmaster (and father of the modern American nuclear submarine force), Admiral Hyman Rickover, was himself quite the Cold Warrior. During his presidency, perhaps because of his prior experience as a submariner, Carter oversaw one of the most intensive periods of activities for the “silent service.”

Everything from increased surveillance and hostile tracking of Soviet nuclear submarines in the depths of the seven seas, to overseeing the tapping of undersea communications cables, occurred under Carter’s watch. So prolific was Carter’s Cold War submarine policy that a massive U.S. Navy spy submarine was named after him several years ago. That ship is presently in service, being used to covertly monitor other American rivals today.

As you’ll come to see, Carter was schizophrenic as president: on the one hand, seeking to challenge American rivals. And, on the other hand, completely negating those policies by trying to reach out and make peace with Communist states, whether it be the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China. What’s more, the hawkish policies that Carter did champion were always half-hearted.

Lasting Damage: The Carter Doctrine

It was under Carter that the United States began arming the anti-Soviet Mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan (the Soviet Army invaded in 1979 to buttress the ailing Najibullah Communist government of Kabul). While American support was limited to antiquated small arms (things like the World War I-era Enfield rifle), the process that eventuated in the Reagan-era supplying of Stinger missiles and other advanced armaments (which ultimately made the difference in helping the Mujahideen defeat the Reds), was begun under Carter (thanks to his hawkish national security adviser, Zbiginew Brzezinski).

The most hawkish–and long-lasting–foreign policy initiative that Jimmy Carter undertook was the authoring of the doctrine which bears his name. Announced before a joint session of the United States Congress during his first State of the Union Address, President Carter stated that from then on, the United States would use military force to defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf. In other words, the United States would go to war in order to keep the oil supply lines of the region open.

Since oil was (and is) the world’s most important commodity, and since (at that time), the United States disproportionately relied on Mideast oil to power its modern culture, the United States needed to ensure that its access to this commodity remain unimpeded. What’s more, the U.S. needed to keep the world’s access to Mideast oil open as long as possible. During the Carter Administration, the United States was suffering a series of a decade-long, (mostly) geopolitically-related oil and gas shocks. President Jimmy Carter was determined to put an end to the ongoing crisis.

While everyone remembers his puritanical mission to get Americans to “cut back” on their consumption, few remember that Carter also worried about Soviet expansionism in the Persian Gulf. You see, at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, few in the foreign policy establishment believed that Moscow’s end goal was to secure Afghanistan. Most assumed that conquering Afghanistan was but the start of a larger Soviet push to break their decades-long encirclement, eventuating in a Soviet conquest of revolutionary Iran–with access to its warm water ports and massive oil and natural gas stores.

Under Carter, as Andrew Bacevich has outlined in his epic 2016 work, The War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) was created. The first attempts at integrating the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force (as well as their attendant special forces elements) into a cohesive fighting force were made during the Carter Administration. In fact, CENTCOM’s first mission was geared toward deploying an insanely small amount of Army Airborne Rangers to the Zagros Mountains separating Afghanistan from Iran, and resist any potential Soviet invasion of Iran.

The Soviet invasion never came.

It is quite unlikely that the Reds would have ever been able to pacify the Afghan people enough to warrant them sprinting into neighboring Iran. Still, for the hawks who comprise the D.C. establishment, it tickled their fancy to imagine such a frightening circumstance arising from American “passivity.”

When Carter announced his doctrine, he more than anyone else, set the precedent that would define America’s foreign policy from 1980 until present times: the United States would inordinately concentrate on the “Greater Middle East” at the expense of focusing on other strategic priorities in the rest of the world. When people call Carter a dovish, or weak, president, they miss the truly dangerous nature of Carter: it was that he overcommitted the United States to an extremely costly foreign policy. But, as you have seen–and will continue to see–his application of hawkish policies were both haphazard and never fully complete.

Carter was always too busy hedging.

Human Rights & the National Interest Do Not Go Together

Carter also entered into office intent on merging U.S. national interests–which had been coldly pursued by the Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger-Gerald Ford trifecta for most of the 1970s. Because of this, the United States supported some of the world’s most brutal autocracies in an attempt to balance against global Communism. Carter was appalled by what he viewed as excessively cold geopolitical calculations. Like many neoconservatives (and neoliberals) who would succeed him in the post-Cold War era, Carter wanted human rights to become a matter of national interest.

It was this schizophrenic pursuit which cost America the most in the long-term. Take the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Angry at a collapsing economy and the autocratic repression of the secular Shāh, the Iranian people revolted. Given that Iran was essentially the lynchpin of American foreign policy in the Middle East, the Shāh naturally assumed that the Carter Administration would lend critical aid to his stricken regime in the face of such unrest (as the U.S. and its allies had done during the coup in the 1950s, which replaced a democratically-elected Iranian government with the Shāh’s government).

Instead, Carter insisted on recognizing the Iranian peoples’ will. In many respects, Carter midwifed the Islamic Republic of Iran that continues to threaten and challenge the United States and its allies today. Even still, Carter further alienated the Iranians by refusing to then hand over the Shāh to the angry mob of Iranian protesters (the Shāh and his wife had fled Iran shortly before the revolution and sought asylum in the United States). Carter’s refusal directly led to an irate crowd of Iranian radical students storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran and holding the Americans there hostage for more than 400 days.

So, Carter was simultaneously insisting on preserving the Greater Middle East as an American backyard while ignoring the rising threat posed by revolutionary Iran. Even as President Carter finally came around to the threat of Iran (during the Hostage Crisis, which consumed much of his presidency), he dragged his proverbial feet on authorizing a rescue mission. By the time that he did sign off on the ill-fated mission, it was such a complex endeavor–and he had micromanaged it to such a point–that it was doomed to failure before it was ever implemented.

The Art of Self-Deterrence

Further, Carter took to enhancing America’s national security space policy in the form of developing anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. Recognizing how the United States during the 1970s had become more dependent upon satellites orbiting overhead (and many accurately predicted that America would become increasingly reliant on such systems in the future), the Carter Administration wanted to have the ability to threaten similar Soviet systems.

The assumption was that the USSR, just like the United States, recognized the benefits of satellites and would begin relying more on them as time progressed. While America’s vulnerable satellites might prove to be a tempting target to the Reds, if the United States possessed the capability to similarly threaten Soviet satellite constellations, the deterrence that existed between the U.S. and USSR might be extended to space above.

However, as time would prove, the Carter Administration was never entirely sanguine about the prospects of fighting in space. Instead, the real purpose of creating the anti-satellite weapons was to let their existence be known to the Soviet Union, so as to prompt the Reds into signing an anti-satellite weapons treaty–thereby extending deterrence at a lower cost. Yet, the negotiations ultimately stalled as relations between the United States and the Soviet Union deteriorated in the aftermath of the aforementioned Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Carter additionally sought treaties with the Soviet Union over chemical and biological weapons. Ultimately, however, the talks never progressed, as the two sides disagreed on important particulars. For example, the Soviets refused to allow for on-site inspectors to review their ASAT facilities (or their chemical or biological weapons facilities). Meanwhile, the Soviets wanted what was then America’s developing space shuttle program to be included in any ASAT treaty, meaning that the United States would have to abandon the project in its infancy entirely. Carter categorically rejected these demands.

Naturally, of course, the Soviets were dissembling the entire time they negotiated with Carter. They had already developed ASAT technology by the time the United States was seeking to build its own systems. And, the Soviets never once intended on respecting any ASAT treaty with the United States. They planned on signing any treaty that limited American capabilities in space, so that they could continue their own development of space-based weapons and advanced systems without much competition from the West.

With or without the treaties that Carter sought to make with the USSR, under his presidency, the country was time-and-again duped by Communist guile. It’s strange considering Carter’s policies toward the Greater Middle East in response to fear from the prospect of a Soviet entrance into the wider region on the heels of their invasion of Afghanistan. It produced many bad policies as a result.

Bending to Beijing

The last, most disastrous policy was the Carter Administration’s China policy which upended decades of U.S. foreign policy toward both China and their long-time rival, Taiwan. Carter era policies also effectively surrendered the strategically vital, American-built Panama Canal Zone to China (though this was an indirect consequence of his policy).

The Torrijos-Carter Treaty of 1979 which returned control of the Panama Canal to the host country did not directly allow for China to take over the strategically vital gateway linking the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean, but once the American-built canal was handed back to the Panamanian government they eventually sold the two port concessions at both ends of the canal to a Chinese-based firm, Whampoa.

As for the changes between the United States and its relationships with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as well as the Republic of China–or, the Taiwanese government–those were the most devastating. You see, despite having taken Mao Zedong’s opening during his presidency, Richard M. Nixon had always kept his version of entente with China strictly limited. While he sought to upend the balance of power in the tripolar relationship between the U.S., USSR, and PRC, Nixon refused to allow for America’s stalwart ally of Taiwan to be sacrificed on the altar of great power politics.

President Carter came into office and did exactly what his much-maligned predecessor, Nixon, had refused to do: he embraced the Communist government of Beijing as being the only legitimate government of China. While Carter did stop short of agreeing with the Chinese desire to declare Taiwan nothing more than a renegade province of China, Carter’s stripping of Taiwan’s status as a full-fledged nation-state on the international stage permanently weakened Taiwan relative to China.

Ever since Carter’s Shanghai Communique of 1979, the United States (and much of the rest of the world) has spent the last several decades cozying up to China, building their country up economically by integrating China into the world economy. In many respects, China, not the United States–and certainly not the Soviet Union–actually won the Cold War. Today, China is behemoth, possessed of a modern (and still growing) military; with the world’s second-largest economy (in GDP terms) that is set to displace the United States’ GDP in the next five years. All while still being able to press ahead with their territorial revanchism–including being able to threaten and, likely, invade Taiwan.

The Chinese threat which menaces the United States and much of the world today was created not when Nixon accepted Mao’s offer to open China up to the West. Rather, it resides squarely on the shoulders of Carter, who haphazardly normalized relations with China at the expense of Taiwan. Carter demanded little out of China in exchange for embracing the country as he did (and as subsequent American presidents did, just as they followed the equally uninformed Carter Doctrine to its letter).

Indecision is a Real Killer

Far from being a weak dove, Jimmy Carter was a feckless and indecisive hawk. Obviously being a hawk comes with its own problems that the country will have to pay for (just ask Ronald Reagan). But, being indecisive and equally hawkish is an insane position to take. Carter’s critics are wrong to paint him as weak. Doing so excuses him of the real mistakes that were made is in his consequential presidency (note that I use “consequential” in the same negative way that I would use it to describe James Buchanan’s presidency).

For Carter, the real problem was his energetic crafting of ideas and pitiful execution or implementation of them. In some cases, the failure to implement was probably for the best. However, in other areas, his failure to implement–coupled with his endless desire to hedge, particularly in foreign affairs–created lasting problems for the country. Basically, if one is going to be a hawk then at least embrace it more fully. Carter’s method was simply terrible.

In many respects, the Carter Administration reminds me of the George W. Bush Administration in its quixotic application of U.S. power. Carter insisted on standing up the Reds–except when he didn’t stand up to them. Carter was obsessed with finding an alternative energy source that would divorce America’s from its unhealthy dependence on fossil fuels (as he was a nuclear engineer, this position undoubtedly made sense to Carter).

Yet, Carter failed to implement any serious program to get America off foreign fossil fuel dependence and, instead, simply made life harder on the average American at the precise time in American history when life was hard enough due to the oil shocks that defined the 1970s for America. As a corollary, Carter further undercut his notions of energy independence by committing America to the long-standing (and disastrous) Carter Doctrine.

Because of Carter, the United States saw the birthing of two potent rivals in the Greater Middle East–the Islamic Republic of Iran and the creation of the Mujahideen which would ultimately evolve into al Qaeda. As Bacevich outlines, there is a straight line that can also be drawn from the Carter Doctrine to America’s undying support for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which resulted in America’s 30 year war with Iraq, as well as the actions that eventuated in earning Bin Laden’s undying enmity–the stationing of American troops on the purportedly virginal sands of Mohammed’s homeland in Saudi Arabia.

At the same time that Carter insisted on standing up for the amorphous concept of human rights, he was cutting sweetheart deals with Red China at the expense of long-time American allies, thereby creating another monster that the United States must contend with today. One reason for Carter’s return of control of the Panama Canal to the host country was this sense of human rights. He did this even as Soviet-backed rebels throughout Latin America were undermining legitimate governments there.

Yet, he failed to recognize the sheer insanity of his policies: he wouldn’t support long-time American allies, like the Shāh of Iran or Taiwan, but he would lecture the world about freedom and fairness, while allowing for the empowerment of two of the most totalitarian regimes in history, that of the Islamic Republic of Iran and that of the People’s Republic of China.

Jimmy Carter was intellectually, probably, one of the smartest men to have ever inhabited the Oval Office. What’s more, he was as bull-headed as another one-term president, John Adams. But, Carter never fully understood the way the presidency was supposed to work. He further failed to grasp that the world would not operate according to his own personal sense of ethics; it was not a nuclear reactor on a submarine. While Carter certainly had personal honor and an incredible faith in God, he had little understanding of politics and even less interest in being an effective leader (as opposed to being a manager, which is how he usually acted).

Thus, Jimmy Carter was an indecisive hawk whose legacy will plague this country for decades to come. Thankfully, his was but one term in office. What few fail to grasp is just how dangerous hawkishness can be–especially when it is embraced by an unserious president, like Carter. Although, indecision is a real killer of presidencies.


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