Saturday, December 27, 2008

In praise of Jimmy Carter

In four years, Carter did more good than Reagan did in eight.

One of the more annoying aspects of the recently expired Republican hegemony in American politics was its odes to Ronald Reagan. Every candidate was a soldier of the Reagan revolution, every thing Reagan did was tinged with gold, and every opportunity was taken to add his name to airports, government buildings, etc.- we even came periously close to a Reagan dime!

But if one considers the actual issues and how they have turned out over time, this turns out to have been somewhat premature, to say the least. On such topics as winning the cold war, managing the economy, establishing energy independence, even advancing gay rights, Jimmy Carter was out ahead, and will come to be appreciated in the light of history as being not only on the right side of key issues, but also more effective.

First off, the Iran hostage crisis. Ultimately, it was not Carter's fault that the hostages were taken, or how they were treated. The time-honored protection of diplomats should have had special resonance in a traditional culture like that of Iran. The Iranians only besmirched their own position for decades to come by violating norms that they rely on, as do all other countries. On the other hand, it was the US which played the key role in installing and propping up the Shah (thanks to the Republican Eisenhower administration, after Truman refused British overtures on the issue), with the chickens coming home to roost on Carter's watch. The US was/is also the implicit guarantor of the entire international system, so Iran's breach of diplomatic behavior was a way to topple an apple cart that was in large part owned by the US, and would be seen that way around the world, fairly or not. Carter was caught in the news glare of a transfixed nation, and was also unwilling to negotiate with Iran on the base terms that Reagan may have pursued. The Iran-Contra affair later made clear just how corrupt Reagan's dealings with Iran were- not exactly a high point for US international relations.

In energy issues, it goes without saying that Carter was more foresighted and disciplined than Reagan, cardigan or no cardigan. Reagan let energy independence projects slide, let conservation effors slide, let fuel efficiency standards slide, not because the US had become more self-sufficient in energy, but because OPEC had collapsed as more production arrived from other foreign sources. This was never going to be a long-term solution, even in the absence of consciousness about global warming. Peak oil, though still a far-off concept, was surely a proper concern for policy makers, domestic production having peaked some time previously. It was poor policy to increase reliance on foreign oil supplies, most of them in countries with strategic, human rights, and other entangling problems (Russia, Venezuela, Mexico, Nigeria, the entire Middle East).

With respect to Central and South America, the difference is again quite startling. Carter finished negotiations with Panama to sell the Panama canal, against heavy domestic opposition- a deal that has given us rich dividends in a stable canal and improved relations with the entire region. In contrast, Reagan pursued a proxy war with the Sandanistas and supported rightist thug-ocracies in Honduras, Guatamala and Panama (later to be cleaned up by George H. Bush). This amounted to reliving shades of Vietnam, and today, the Sandanistas are once again in power in Nicaragua through democratic means. On the other hand, Reagan's invasion of Grenada, gratuitous though it may have been, was warranted and provided that country a measure of stability after successive coups by Bishop and Coard.

In general economic policy, the overriding issue of the day was inflation. Inflation was finally slain by Paul Volcker, who was willing to turn the screws on interest rates until the money supply finally contracted. And who appointed Volcker? Jimmy Carter, mid-way through his presidential term. The price for this act of bravery and principle was the deep recession that brought Reagan into office. In contrast, Reagan took advantage of Carter's fiscal discipline by spending freely with deficits (called voodoo economics at the time)- giving unfunded tax cuts to the rich and building a cold-war military that we didn't need. This culture of profligate deficit spending for consumption rather than investment has continued to this day, exemplified by the current Bush administration. Indeed the whole tenor of Reaganism- hatred for effective government, business uber alles, deregulation, and supply-side trickle-down tax give-aways now is coming back to haunt us as the culture of borrowing and business "self-regulation" comes to a painful end.

Finally, the feather in the cap of the Reagan administration usually is given as winning the cold war. Who really won the cold war? Was it Kissinger/Nixon offering friendly detente with the one hand while playing the China card with the other? Was it Reagan with a bulked up military and dramatic talk about the evil empire? Was it Bush père, with his Aikido approach of letting the giant fall of its own weight? Or was it Carter, with his emphasis on human rights and principle in foreign policy? I think it goes without saying that Reagan's policies had very little to do with the collapse of the USSR. It collapsed from internal sclerosis and economic stasis, as well as the political/cultural vacuum of long-lapsed Marxism/Leninism. Indeed, Reagan's saber-rattling and proxy wars served here, as they generally do, to strengthen the targeted regime rather than weaken it. And as far as military strength is concerned, the USSR had, and Russia still has, more nuclear missiles than we do, however decrepit the rest of their military was at the time.

My bet for the most influential policy that brought down the Soviet Union was the focus on human rights and basic freedoms, first by the Helsinki accords, and then by the Carter administration. It was this policy that gave heart to Soviet dissidents like Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, and which struck directly at the core of USSR's self-justification. If the people were poor, they might still appreciate egalatarian principles. If the state was corrupt, it was still a great state- a pluralistic nexus of many nations in the USSR and an empire of many more on its borders. But if the basic human values that the ideology of the USSR supposedly most valued were hollow, as was reluctantly admitted by Kruschev in the post-Stalin era, and on which the Helsinki accords continued to shine a light, with, for instance, the highly publicized defection of Jews, then what was left? What was the point of continuing to be in opposition to the liberal European/American mode of state and government, which had shown itself to be both prosperous and decent?

Of course later times have abundantly highlighted the basic decency and perspicacity of Jimmy Carter, including the honor of a Nobel peace prize. His current observations on the Palestinian question are particularly acute, proclaiming that Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is shameful and akin to Apartheid. It is imperative that the Israelis be given some tough love. But I'd like to put my vote in to rehabilitate Carter's presidential legacy as well- to appreciate that his administration was one of our best, if not most popular at the time, with long-lasting benefits to the nation.

Incidental link to an obituary for Griffin Bell, another fine Carter appointment.

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