GRACIOUS AS EVER, Jimmy Carter says that when it comes to international relations, the presidency of George W. Bush has set an all-time low. "I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world," Carter told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week, "this administration has been the worst in history."
Former presidents don't usually insult their successors quite so blatantly, and Carter's slur, not surprisingly, drew international attention. Whereupon he claimed that his remarks had been "maybe careless or misinterpreted" and insisted: "I was certainly not talking personally about any president." No, of course not.
If "Pot Calling a Kettle Black" were a category in the Guinness Book of World Records, Carter would be a shoo-in for the upcoming edition. History's ultimate judgment on Bush may not be known for some time, but its verdict on Carter, who vacated the White House 26 years ago, seems clear enough. And that verdict is -- well, let's just say he would be well-advised not to toss around phrases like "worst in history" when the conversation turns to presidential performance.
Christopher Hitchens this week recalled arguing with Eugene McCarthy, a lifelong liberal who had voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980. McCarthy was unapologetic about crossing party lines. 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."
The worst of the 20th century, at any rate. During the Carter years, America's international standing went into freefall. The 39th president entered the White House as the tide in the Cold War was turning in the Soviet Union's favor. Vietnam and Cambodia had fallen to the communists, and Marxist governments had seized power in Mozambique, Angola, and Ethiopia as well. Yet the new president went out of his way to dismiss principled anticommunism as foolish paranoia: "We are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear," he said in a Notre Dame commencement address 30 years ago this week. Instead of acting forcefully to block any further expansion of communist power, Carter sought to appease it.
Before long, he was slashing billions of dollars from the defense budget, canceling the B-1 bomber program, and ordering US missiles removed from South Korea. He welcomed the Sandinista takeover of Nicaragua, and provided the junta with $90 million in aid, disregarding what Lane Kirkland, head of the AFL-CIO, called "Nicaragua's headlong rush into the totalitarian camp." He began diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro's dictatorship, unperturbed by the thousands of Cuban troops fighting with Marxist forces in Africa. As Moscow engaged in a vast military buildup and cultivated an international network of terrorists, the Carter administration sliced hundreds of intelligence positions at the CIA.
Not until the Soviets invaded Afghanistan did the scales finally fall from Carter's eyes. Moscow's naked aggression, he said, "made a more dramatic change in my opinion of what the Soviets' ultimate goals are than anything they've done in the previous time I've been in office."
Toward those who warned that American weakness was dangerously provocative, Carter was scornful -- "simplistic," he said of Ronald Reagan in October 1980, "jingoistic ... shooting from the hip." Toward tyrants and goons, on the other hand, he was creepily unctuous. "A great and courageous leader" who "believes in human rights" was Carter's description of Yugoslav dictator Marshal Tito. To Romania's brutal Nicolae Ceausescu, the president fawned : "Our goals are the same ... to let the people of the world share in growth, in peace, in personal freedom ... in enhancing human rights." His sycophancy in the face of malevolence was memorably captured in photographs that showed him kissing Soviet ruler Leonid Brezhnev at a 1979 summit in Vienna, just months before the invasion of Afghanistan.
Worst of all was the Carter administration's supine response to the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran later the same year. When Carter hinted that he might use military force to end the crisis and free the 52 US diplomats being held in captivity, he was mocked by the Ayatollah Khomeini. "He is beating on an empty drum," Khomeini sneered. "Neither does Carter have the guts for military action nor would anyone listen to him." The hostages were not released until Reagan was sworn in as president, 444 days after they were taken captive.
The fruits of Carter's spinelessness have been bitter, says scholar Steven Hayward, author of The Real Jimmy Carter. The fall of Iran, he observes, "set in motion the advance of radical Islam and the rise of terrorism that culminated in Sept. 11." Similarly, by doing nothing to prevent the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter invited an evil from which grew the jihadist violence that is such a dangerous menace today.
It took Americans only four years to realize what a disaster Carter had been; they booted him out in 1980 by a 44-state landslide. "The worst in history," he says of Bush. Look who's talking.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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