Politics

Jimmy Carter’s Legacy of War

Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and presidential incompetence.

By 6.19.14

UPI
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Iraq is a disaster. And yes, President Obama has made ghastly mistakes for which he is directly responsible. Yet the current situation in Iraq isn’t Obama’s fault. Or George W. Bush’s. Not to mention Bill Clinton's, George H.W. Bush's or Ronald Reagan’s.

But Jimmy Carter? Yes. There’s the man who should be called to account. In fact, it was during Carter’s single term in office that Iran became an Islamic fundamentalist terror state and that Saddam orchestrated a coup to take power in Iraq, launching the Iraq-Iran War and a megalomaniacal career as a mass murderer. Not that you’ll ever hear that from the newspapers. Let’s hop in the time machine, shall we? 

It’s 1979. The President of the United States — Jimmy Carter — is well on the way to earning a reputation around the globe as a weak leader. Two years earlier, barely five months into his term, Carter had traveled to Notre Dame to deliver a commencement speech. In which he said, startlingly in the middle of the Cold War:

Being confident of our own future, we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear. I'm glad that that's being changed.

He went on — at length — about his belief in détente with the Soviet Union (none of that Reaganesque “we win, they lose” business) and his explanations of how he would deal with the world. In practice, that means that during his term he gives back the Panama Canal, opines that he might withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea regardless of the still-ever-present threat from North Korea, and invites Nicaragua’s new Communist Sandinista leaders to the White House, giving them $118 million in aid.

By 1979, the chickens of Carterism have started coming home to roost. It was quite the momentous year — with ominous consequences. 

AFGHANISTAN: Having made plain that there was nothing to fear from Communism, proclaiming his devotion to détente with the Soviet Union, having signed a controversial strategic arms treaty (SALT II) with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, on Christmas Eve of 1979 Carter was stunned to learn the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan and begun a war with the Mujahideen. It was during this fighting, around 1988, that al Qaeda was founded. The Reagan administration later began to provide aid — stinger missiles among other things — to the Mujahideen. By 1989, the battered Russians withdrew, and the Mujahideen turned its attention to various competing factions. In the infighting, the Taliban rose and took control of the country.

IRAN: Carter abandoned the Shah, and his UN ambassador went so far as to call the Ayatollah Khomeini “some kind of saint.” The Shah went into exile, but Carter refused to allow him into the U.S. until the Shah became mortally ill. The mullahs demanded that Carter hand the Shah back over. Carter wouldn’t do that, but he wanted him out. Iranian fury at the U.S. rose, and in 1979 hostages were taken at the American embassy in Tehran. (Shortly thereafter the Shah left, ending up in Egypt, where he would die.) Carter was now engulfed in the Iranian hostage crisis — the first in a series of American clashes with the Iranian mullahs that would continue straight through to today. Notably, those who insist that America would be better off if Saddam Hussein had remained in power never get around to making the same claim for the Shah. But in the wake of his overthrow, a country that was once a solid American ally went in the hands of the Ayatollah and radical mullahs and mobs. This has affected the foreign policy of every one of Carter’s successors, resulting in another hostage crisis (in Lebanon), the murder of Marines in their Beirut barracks, the hijacking of TWA flight 847 and the murder of passenger — and U.S. Navy diver — Robert Stethem. All of these involved Hezbollah or the Islamic Jihad or both. And both were financed by the new Islamic masters of Iran.

The Bush 41 presidency didn’t fare much better. According to former Bush aide and later president of the Council for Foreign Relations Richard Haas:

The U.S.–Iran relationship was largely stagnant during the Bush administration, with little contact and less progress…. Iran and its support for terrorist groups posed a significant threat to efforts designed to promote peace and secure Israel’s place in the region.… Many of the same issues that had dogged U.S.-Iranian relations before President Bush took office in 1989 — including differences about Israel, the use of terrorism as a tool of policy, and Iraq — were still problems when President Bush was succeeded by President Clinton.

And so they were. Iranian-backed terror increased during the Clinton years. Most notable was the bombing of the Khobar Towers, a U.S. Air Force facility in Saudi Arabia. U.S. intelligence tied the attack to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah. By the Bush 43 era the Iranians had begun a serious push for nuclear weapons, a bid that has come closer to fruition in the Obama era.

IRAQ: Saddam Hussein took power in Iraq in July of 1979. He had never been a fan of the Shah of Iran, but was even less a fan of the Ayatollah. Shortly after taking power, Saddam quickly established he was a dictator’s dictator. Calling a meeting of hundreds of Ba’ath Party leaders a mere six days after overthrowing his predecessor, the names of men alleged to have committed treason — meaning been disloyal to Saddam — were read out loud. As their names were called, Saddam’s secret police dragged 68 of them out of their seats, with 22 being executed, the rest headed for prison. Having established himself now as the iron fist of Iraq, Saddam immediately began maneuvering to have Iraq replace Iran as a regional power. Why? Saddam understood that the Iranian Revolution had upended the political stability of the Middle East — and that suddenly the Carter administration realized it needed a “counterweight” to its onetime ally Iran. Saddam set his sights on invading Iran. Journalist Kenneth R. Timmerman, a longtime Middle East and Defense correspondent, in his book The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq (written after the first Iraq War in 1991) quotes Carter White House NSC aide Gary Sick as saying of Carter’s strategy with Saddam:

“[Zbigniew] Brzezinski [Carter’s national security adviser] was letting Saddam assume there was a U.S. green light for his invasion of Iran, because there was no explicit red light. But to say the U.S. planned and plotted it all out in advance is simply not true. Saddam had his own reasons for invading Iran, and they were sufficient.”

Another Carter NSC aide, Howard Teicher, says that Brzezinski 

concluded that Iraq was poised to succeed Iran as the principle pillar of stability in the Persian Gulf. Although this notion remained very discreet for nearly a year, by the spring of 1980 Brzezinski and others in government and the media began to suggest publicly that Iraq was the logical successor to Iran as the dominant military power in the Persian Gulf.… Indeed, in April, Brzezinski stated on national television that he saw no fundamental incompatibility of interests between the United States and Iraq.

With suggestions of encouragement from the Carter administration — now fighting for its political life in the fall presidential campaign and anxious for a resolution to the Iranian hostage crisis — Saddam Hussein launched a massive invasion of Iran in September 1980. The war would go on until August of 1988 — eight years — forcing Reagan to deal with Saddam at the same time he was dealing with Iran’s financial backing of terrorism and the hostage taking of Americans in Lebanon — and more. The numbers of casualties of the Iran-Iraq War are inexact, but they are easily in the hundreds of thousands, with some placing it at one million.

Why is this relevant now? Astonishingly (or maybe not) there are presumably serious people out there who have swallowed the liberal line — not to mention the Obama line — that “it’s Bush’s fault.”

Here’s an account in which Kennedy, a co-host of the Fox Business show called “The Independents,” told a stunned Bush UN Ambassador John Bolton: “So you’re telling me a completely destabilized Iraq now is better than what it was in 2002?” Over at CNN, host Chris Cuomo, son of the Carter-supporting Mario, was even worse. Demanded Cuomo of ex-Bush Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz: “Where is the contrition, you know, if you want to use that word, where is the Bush administration saying we got it wrong?”

The Bush administration? In 1979 George W. Bush was a recently failed candidate for Congress in Texas and the son of an ex-Republican factotum — George H.W. Bush — the latter who was out of office and nursing what seemed at the time to be a distinctly longshot presidential ambition. In fact, it is Jimmy Carter who set in motion — or stood by watching as it was — much of what ails the Middle East. The Carter legacy of weakness begat the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which begat the rise of the Islamic terrorist state of Iran and the winks and nods to the Iraqi dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

No one summed up this abysmal Carter legacy of war and terror better than the late Christopher Hitchens, who wrote the following in Slate back in May of 2007:

I once had quite an argument with the late Sen. Eugene McCarthy [the liberal Democrat from Minnesota], who maintained adamantly that it had been right for him to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 for no other reason. “Mr. Carter,’ he said, ‘quite simply abdicated the whole responsibility of the presidency while in office. He left the nation at the mercy of its enemies at home and abroad. He was the worst president we ever had.”

Hitchens added:

In the Carter years, the United States was an international laughingstock. This was not just because of the prevalence of his ghastly kin: the beer-sodden brother Billy, doing deals with Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi, and the grisly matriarch, Miz Lillian. It was not just because of the president's dire lectures on morality and salvation and his weird encounters with lethal rabbits and UFOs. It was not just because of the risible White House "Bible study" sessions run by Bert Lance and his other open-palmed Elmer Gantry pals from Georgia. It was because, whether in Afghanistan, Iran, or Iraq — still the source of so many of our woes — the Carter administration could not tell a friend from an enemy. His combination of naïveté and cynicism — from open-mouthed shock at Leonid Brezhnev's occupation of Afghanistan to underhanded support for Saddam in his unsleeping campaign of megalomania — had terrible consequences that are with us still. It's hardly an exaggeration to say that every administration since has had to deal with the chaotic legacy of Carter's mind-boggling cowardice and incompetence.

Amen, Christopher. Amen.

Make no mistake: The hard fact of the matter is that Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan have made in the Middle East, have all had to deal with Jimmy Carter’s legacy of war, weakness, and incompetence.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.