When the Carter presidency comes up, so does a dark moment in American history: the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981. This was, however, not the only significant moment in Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy record; the Democrat had a lasting impact on a number of other countries both during and after his presidency and in some cases, as in the US baiting the Soviets to invade Afghanistan, his policies revealed the deep cynicism that runs through American meddling abroad. In the second part of a two-part interview for “Scheer Intelligence,” Jonathan Alter and host Robert Scheer examine how the 39th president’s decisions regarding Afghanistan, Haiti, North Korea, China, and Israel, among other nations, hold up today.
The author of “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life” tells Scheer that partially due to the fact that Carter has often asserted the right of Palestinian nationhood, he is not given enough credit for one of his more notable foreign policy achievements: the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel.
“What Carter did by taking the Egyptian army off the table as a threat to Israel [with the 1978 treaty],” says Alter, “made him the greatest president for the security of the state of Israel since Harry Truman and the founding of Israel.”
While Scheer calls the former president’s stance on Palestine “courageous,” to the veteran journalist one of the most disappointing moments in Carter’s presidency came shortly after the Camp David Accords. In 1979, Carter embroiled the U.S. in Afghanistan, a decision that contributed to the destabilization of the region before the Soviets invaded. Although the Carter administration claimed its interventions in the country stemmed from the Soviet invasion of December 1979, in reality, Scheer points out to Alter, the U.S. government had already thrown its support behind the Mujahideen who were trying to overthrow the secular government in Kabul six months before the Soviet Union invaded.
Some critics like then Senator Bob Dole believe the move had more to do with distracting the American public from the 444-day Iran hostage crisis than any facts on the ground in Kabul.
Scheer references Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski admitting in a 1998 interview with the French magazine, Nouvelle L’Observateur, that the U.S .intervened in Afghanistan before the Soviets did.
[For the record, Brzezinski said in the interview that “according to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahideen began during 1980… after the Soviert army invaded Afghanistan on Dec. 24, 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.” Asked if he regretted this, Brzezinski responded, “Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it?” Brzezinski added that he wrote to Carter saying, “ We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.” Asked if Brzezinski regretted “having supported Islamic fundamentalism, which has given arms and advice to future terrorists,” Brzezinski replied, “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”]
Scheer says to Alter of Brzezinski’s strategy: “That would indicate a great deal of cynicism, especially in light of the fact that some of the people we ended up backing at that time [became] Al-Qaida–Osama bin Laden was among them–and ended up blowing up the World Trade Center on 9/11.” That was three years and eight months after Brzezinski dismissed “some agitated Muslims.”
As the two journalists debate the political reasons for Carter’s actions, Alter recognizes that aside from the Camp David Accords, Carter’s Middle East policy was far less successful than his efforts elsewhere.
“His real achievements were in nearly eradicating Guinea worm disease in Africa and preventing Wars in Haiti and North Korea,” says the historian, adding that his most significant contribution to global politics had nothing to do with a specific nation.
“Carter’s human rights policy [was] the first time in human history a major power set a standard about how other governments should treat their own people,” explains Alter. “[Harvard professor] Karl Deutsch told Carter, who was despondent or at least a little depressed after he lost the presidency, [that] a thousand years from now, people are going to be talking about your presidency because of the human rights policy.”
Alter concludes if one takes a long view of history, Carter’s overall foreign policy will ultimately be seen as remarkable. Listen to the full conversation between Alter and Scheer as the two also discuss the Democrat’s immigration policy and the failings of 1970s media to provide an accurate record of the misunderstood president’s actions.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata