I’m listening to Jimmy Carter excoriate George Bush at the Democratic convention in the same terms he excoriated Gerald Ford in the 1976 campaign. But for the fact that Carter is slurring his speech and slobbering like he’s a stroke victim, I’m feeling 30 years younger. What are Carter’s credentials to render judgment on the foreign policy of the Bush administration?
Those of us who lived as adults through the four years of the Carter administration may find Carter’s credentials a little wanting, inversely proportionate to his presumption. We recall how Carter proudly announced that the United States had overcome its “inordinate fear of Communism,” famously planted a kiss on the cheek of Leonid Brezhnev, and then reacted with shock when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
We also recall how followers of Ayatollah Khomeni took 67 Americans hostage at the American embassy in Tehran. Over the succeeding 444 days, Carter tried idle threats, vain pleas, and ineffectual military action to resolve the hostage crisis. Only the landslide election and subsequent inauguration of Ronald Reagan ultimately freed the hostages and ended the protracted national humiliation.
Henry Kissinger observed that the Carter administration had managed the extraordinary feat of having achieved, at one and the same time, “the worst relations with our allies, the worst relations with our adversaries, and the most serious upheavals in the developing world since the end of the Second World War.”
These are the preeminent foreign policy credentials that Carter brings to his assessment of the Bush administration. With these credentials, a reasonable person would conclude that discretion is the better part of valor and bite his tongue. Carter, however, seems to believe that the failed foreign policy of his administration should serve as a benchmark against which to judge the foreign policy of succeeding administrations.
Here is Paul Greenberg’s recap of the Carter years:
The country got used to being held hostage, and to Jimmy Carter’s explaining, night after night, in that maddeningly oh-so-reasonable way, that there was really nothing to be done. Defeatism personified, he addressed catastrophe in the calmest way, in the voice of a man who found disaster routine. He kept explaining the need to appreciate the complexity of international affairs, by which he seemed to mean that America’s function in the world was to get kicked around — by whatever bunch of bearded megalomaniacs chose to kidnap our people next.
At home and abroad, Jimmy Carter had to be the most incompetent president of the latter half of the 20th Century; the competition isn’t even close. But even his incompetence might have been bearable if he hadn’t also been such a bore. That interminably whiny voice, that picture of an American president huddling before a White House fireplace in a sweater, shivering before the might of the oil sheiks, delivering pious little lectures about the wisdom of impotence in foreign affairs…it went on for four years that seemed more like four eternities.
Well, yes. The true epitaph of the Carter administration belongs to the anonymous typesetter at the Boston Globe who put in a dummy headline that mistakenly made its way into print over a Globe editorial on a typically flaccid Carter speech: “More mush from the wimp.”