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The Great Carter Mystery

Is incompetence the mother of success?

Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty
President Jimmy Carter listens to a question from his audience during a speech made as part of a visit to Yazoo, Mississippi in July 1977.

Arthur Schlesinger was perhaps the quintessential New Republic intellectual, in both his ideological and intellectual style. This entertaining fulmination against Jimmy Carter was absolutely true, if not entirely fair. It would have been obvious to most of the magazine’s readers that the great historian had an ulterior motive. The target of his ire was locked in a struggle with Teddy Kennedy for the Democratic nomination that spring. Schlesinger had been one of the leading citizens of Camelot and a primary author of its posthumous mythology. He had, in other words, a strong rooting interest in the campaign. And the magazine had its own bias. In the 1980 general election, it endorsed John Anderson, a quixotic third-party candidate, rather than putting its weight behind the feckless incumbent.

—Franklin Foer, former TNR editor,
Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America

How does he do it?

Here is an administration in ruins. Here is a president who has nearly quadrupled the inflation rate at home, has produced the highest interest rates in American history, and now is deliberately steering the nation into a recession; abroad he has kicked away confidence among friends and foes alike in the sobriety, consistence, and reliability of American foreign policy. Six months ago he was nowhere in the polls. Today, barring a rebirth of sanity in the Democratic party, Jimmy Carter seems headed for renomination; and, barring repression of a death wish in the Republican party, for reelection. Have we turned into a nation of masochists? Has our noble land fallen under some malign curse? 

There are simpler explanations. In an irony not unknown to historians. Carter’s very incompetence has been his salvation. He owes his resurrection to two international crises—Iran and Afghanistan—that he himself helped bring about. 

The first crisis was surely one of the most needless in American history. British diplomats in Tehran had warned their government that the admission of the shah to the United Kingdom would provoke retaliation. The British government heeded those warnings. Carter received the same warnings from American diplomats—and rejected them. A specialist in tropical medicine employed by the Rockefeller interests claimed that the shah’s life could be saved only by emergency treatment in New York. Carter, so far as one knows, did not even do what secretaries of Health, Education, and Welfare tell us should be routine in all surgery cases: ask for a second opinion. He let in the shah, and the Iranians, as predicted, stormed the American embassy. The medical pretext was quickly disproved when a Canadian doctor flew to New York from British Columbia to perform the critical operation. Even the good gray New York Times recently said, “The more we learn about the ailments of the deposed Shah of Iran, the more likely it seems that his health did not require him to come to the United States after all.” If Carter had made intelligent decisions, the shah probably would still be undisturbed in Cuernavaca; the Canadian doctor would have flown to Mexico City rather than to New York City to remove the royal gallstones; and our diplomats would be going about their business as usual in Tehran. 

Nonetheless, the national indignation over the appalling Iranian action fed the genial but dopey American instinct to rally behind presidents in moments of adversity. People postponed inconvenient questions as to how we got into the fix. Carter’s popularity soared. I could not but recall sitting in President Kennedy’s office a few days after the Bay of Pigs. A secretary brought in an advance on a new Gallup poll. As he read it, an expression of intense disgust came over Kennedy’s face. He threw it across his desk to me and said, “Take a look at that. The worse I do, the more popular I become.” 

Then, as Carter’s free ride over the hostages was coming to an end, Moscow obliged with a new crisis: the invasion of Afghanistan. This brutal action too may be persuasively, if less directly, traced to Carter’s prior bungling. Last summer the administration had blundered into the great “pseudo-crisis,” as Senator Robert Byrd accurately termed it, over the Soviet brigade in Cuba. The brigade turned out to have been there since 1962; but Carter feebly permitted its presence to be defined as a mortal threat to the republic. Then, having grandly declared that the status quo was unacceptable, he went on to accept it. This capacity for tergiversation may well have convinced the Kremlin that Carter’s readiness to accept the unacceptable was unlimited. The Cuban pseudo-crisis also prevented the SALT II treaty from coming up for a vote last fall, when it still might have been ratified; had it been in place, the Russians might have thought twice about invading Afghanistan; and, with SALT dead, they evidently figured they had nothing to lose by plunging ahead. 

They plunged ahead, not, as Carter seemed to think, to gain Afghanistan, which they supposed they had gained two years ago in the pro-Soviet coup of April 1978, but to save the pro-Soviet government in Kabul from the Moslem insurgency and to prevent the establishment of a hostile regime on their southern frontier. Doubtless the Soviet government, like other governments at other times, feared to lose “credibility” if it failed to bail out a friend in distress. 

How remote the brave days of Carter’s response to Afghanistan now seem, 10 weeks later!—the American president crying that the scales at last had fallen from his eyes about Soviet intentions; calling the Russian action “a steppingstone to their possible control over much of the world’s oil supplies”; discerning a Soviet master plan “to consolidate a strategic position…that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil”; pronouncing this “the most serious threat to world peace since the Second World War”; going on, as no American spokesman has since John Foster Dulles, about “atheism” as an international menace; and, with full flourish of trumpets, promulgating the Carter Doctrine. 

This doctrine seemingly committed the United States to repel “any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region…by any means necessary, including military force.” It was a moment of high machismo. But senators Jackson and McGovern asked whether the administration really thought the United States could foil a Soviet assault on the Persian Gulf area by military means short of nuclear war. Though this was the clear” implication of Carter’s original declaration, our president beat a hasty retreat. Soon he was volubly disclaiming any idea “that at this time or in the future we expect to have enough military strength…there to defend the region unilaterally.” 

If the Carter Doctrine could be enforced only with the aid of other states, a competent administration would have taken the elementary precaution to consult those other states before announcing the doctrine. It seems incredible, but the Carter administration had undertaken no such consultation. In the weeks since, the Persian Gulf states have made it abundantly clear that the last thing they want in present circumstances is an American expeditionary force in their midst. Carter even offered the Pakistanis $400 million in aid if they would only grant him the privilege of protecting them; they turned down the offer with contempt. The Carter Doctrine, in short, found little support among the countries it was intended to defend. 

As for our European allies, Helmut Schmidt, Giscard d’Estaing, Lord Carrington have, with imperturbable courtesy, indicated their skepticism about the Carter theses—the Soviet master plan; the idea of fighting a conventional war in the Persian Gulf; the nonsense about the greatest world crisis since 1945 (subsequently reduced by Carter himself, when Schmidt visited Washington, to a “potential crisis”). They have hardly bothered to hide their dismay over Carter’s charging ahead without discussing common interests or strategy, nor their frustration over the chronic waywardness and unpredictability of his reactions to world events. Their main doubt seems to be whether they are seeing a badly rattled president responding in an overwrought way to an outrageous but hardly uncharacteristic Soviet move; or an unscrupulous president exaggerating and exploiting international crises for domestic political benefit, at whatever cost to the interests of his allies. (This second thought evidently also has occurred in the Middle East, where, according to Mohammed Heikal, former editor of Cairo’s El Ahram, “most people” believe American foreign policy these days is determined “by President Carter’s tactical considerations in the presidential campaign.”) 

Certainly Carter’s machismo hasn’t helped the cause of peace. George Kennan may be unduly pessimistic; but he is, after all, an old hand in these matters, and, in his comments on Carter’s overreaction to Afghanistan, Kennan observed that he could think of “no instance in modern history” where such a breakdown of communication and such a triumph of unrestrained military suspicion had not “led, in the end, to armed conflict.” It does seem as if Carter hopes to ride a revived cold war into renomination and reelection. And no one can doubt the boost each new crisis has given him in the polls. For a time it seemed as if the ayatollah and Brezhnev were going to decide whom Americans would choose as their next president. They still may. 

Carter’s political managers meanwhile sought to convert every primary into a referendum on whether voters were patriots enough to back the president in a national emergency. Carter himself, in order to consolidate his immunity, embarked in February on the rather sinister course of criticizing those who disagreed publicly with his conduct of foreign policy, especially Senator Kennedy, for “damaging” the country. It required considerable nerve, after Vietnam and Watergate, to disparage the role of debate in a democracy and to revive the doctrine of presidential infallibility. Carter’s attempt to silence Kennedy should have led to widespread protest. It did not. For a while Carter got away with it. The nation that had debated foreign policy without inhibition when Adolf Hitler stood at the Straits of Dover—a somewhat greater threat to American security, one supposes, than a few Russians standing in Kabul—now fell into the mood articulated by, of all people, Carl Rowan: “The President has said to me that this situation is more perilous than the Cuban missile crisis, and you want me to tell him he is wrong?” (Washington Star, January 26). In short, once the president gives the word, it is the duty of all loyal citizens to shut up and march. Come on, Carl! As Dean Acheson remarked to Harry Truman in 1960 regarding the idea that in foreign policy the country must always back the president, “This cliche has become a menace…One might as well say ‘Support the President,’ if he falls off the end of a dock.” 

Carter’s ineptitude in foreign policy has grown each year, thereby confounding the wistful hopes of those who thought he might learn on the job. 1980 has been his banner year for blunders; and what is finally destroying his immunity is less his confusion in grand strategy, impressive as this has been, than his incorrigible incompetence in detail. The mess over the vote on the UN resolution opposing Israel’s settlement policy reminded Americans what a hopeless bungler their president is. Having succeeded in angering Israelis and Arabs equally. Carter then claimed not to have read the resolution and, lacking the decency to accept the blame himself, let faithful Cyrus Vance take the fall. It is still not clear, a month later, whether, apart from the Jerusalem references, the administration endorses or disavows the resolution. 

This is only the most spectacular of a succession of idiocies, from the macho decision last year, with a presidential declaration of emergency in order to waive the requirement of congressional consent, to rush arms to North Yemen—a country that soon proved to be dealing under the table with the Russians—to those on-again, off-again sanctions on Iran, to Carter’s recent press conference explanation of his latest impasse with France (”We did not communicate adequately,” our president said; he never does), to his adoption of a meaningless draft registration plan against the recommendation of his own Selective Service director, to the flat White House denial that Carter had sent a message to Khomeini, when in fact he had. It is little wonder that no one in the world can take a Carter foreign policy move seriously, expecting, as they must, that it will be reversed, recalled, disputed, or forgotten in another week. Even newspapers and magazines that built Carter up over Iran and Afghanistan can no longer contain their concern: “Error and Crisis: A Foreign Policy Against the Ropes” (Washington Post, March 16); “Flip-Flops and Zig-Zags” (Time, March 17); “A U.S. Foreign Policy in Deep Disarray” (New York Times, March 21). 

I do not underestimate the problems of conducting foreign relations in this agitated and equivocal world. But tactical zig-zags against a background of strategic purpose are one thing; tactical zig-zags backed up by strategic incoherence another. Carter has shown himself devoid of a consistent world view, incapable of conceiving or sticking by what Helmut Schmidt calls “a coherent sustainable western policy,” and in consequence is buffeted hither and yon by emotional gusts of irritation, self-righteousness, and vainglory. Can the United States—can the world—afford four more years of this unsteady hand at the tiller?

There are, it may be said, only two reasons to shudder at the thought of four more years of Carter in the White House. One is foreign policy. The other is domestic policy. I began by recalling the economic consequences of President Carter. With his compulsion to dodge responsibility. Carter has tried to distance himself from inflation, high interest rates, looming recession, giving the impression that he, like the rest of us, is the victim of forces beyond human control. If prices were stable, interest rates low, and employment secure, one doubts that he would be so shy about accepting responsibility. 

His economic policy, like his foreign policy, has been one of zig-zags and flip-flops. His goal, he said in 1976, was to reduce inflation to four percent by 1980. He was for standby controls in his campaign, but dumped them thereafter and proceeded to combat inflation by offering an economic stimulus package in 1977, a tax reduction package in 1978, and two separate budgets within six weeks in 1980. While recoiling from controls as if they were the handiwork of Satan, Carter at the same time favors voluntary guidelines, which, of course, are based on exactly the same economic theory as controls, the only difference being that guidelines, being voluntary, do not work, at least not without a good deal more personal presidential commitment than Carter ever gave them. “To the extent guidelines work,” as The New Republic said recently (“Time For Controls?” TNR, February 3) “they create the same problems as controls; to the extent they avoid those problems, they don’t work.” 

Carter underestimated inflation from the beginning. Nor has he to this day offered a coherent account of the reasons for inflation. On “Meet the Press” two days before the Iowa caucuses in January, in one of his few sallies from the Rose Garden sanctuary, he seized the bully pulpit to say: “All the increases for practical purposes of inflation rates since I have been in office have been directly attributable to increased OPEC oil prices.” In other words, don’t blame me, fellows. The only trouble with Carter’s self-exculpation was that it was flagrantly false, as the White House had to confess a few days later. Of the 13.3 percent inflation in 1979, only 2.2 percent was directly attributable to OPEC price rises. Carter’s alibi was not even plausible. The United States buys less than half its oil from OPEC. West Germany and Japan buy virtually all their oil from OPEC. Yet inflation in West Germany and Japan runs a third that in the United States. As Helmut Schmidt dryly remarked to the Wall Street journal when asked about the OPEC-inflation thesis, “It is clear that there are additional factors as well.” Was Carter simply ignorant in his answer to this fairly crucial question? Or did he suppose he could get away with thus misinforming the electorate? 

In fact, Carter’s own policy of decontrolling crude oil has contributed more than OPEC to American inflation. And, having been forced to abandon his OPEC alibi, Carter now has adopted the old Republican thesis: government deficits are the cause of inflation, and a balanced budget is the remedy. Actually, history reveals no predictable relationship between deficits and inflation. West Germany today is running a deficit nearly three times as large as ours in relation to gross national product—and has about one-fourth the inflation. President Kennedy, in his Yale University speech nearly 20 years ago, carefully explained why the idea that deficits caused inflation was a “myth.” Carter’s fourth anti-inflation program, founded on this myth, will have the same effect on prices as his first three anti-inflation programs, under which inflation has steadily risen from 4.8 to 18 percent. 

The only way his program will restrain inflation in the longer run is by throwing the whole economy into a recession—an objective Carter is pursuing grimly with the collaboration of Paul Volcker, the severe if jovial monetarist whom Carter chose, out of 220 million Americans, as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Now it is true that the lamented Gerald Ford, by inducing the worst recession in 40 years, brought inflation down from 12 percent in 1975-76 (while, incidentally, running deficits of $112 billion). But it would take about twice as grinding an economic squeeze to bring inflation down from 18 or 20 percent. The burden of such a draconian policy would fall disastrously on the poor, the unemployed, and the cities. And the effect of recession on such underlying sources of inflation as declining productivity would be only to compound disaster. 

The reason for Carter’s horrible failure in economic policy is plain enough. On such matters he is not a Democrat—at least in anything more recent than the Grover Cleveland sense of the word. Let him speak for himself: “Government cannot solve our problems. It can’t set the goals. It cannot define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty, or provide a bountiful economy, or reduce inflation, or save our cities, or cure illiteracy, or provide energy,” No, children, this is not from a first draft of Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address. It is from Jimmy Carter’s second annual message to Congress, Can anyone imagine Franklin D, Roosevelt talking this way? If he had taken Carter’s view of government, we still would be in the Great Depression. Can anyone imagine Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, or George McGovern uttering those words?  

To take Carter’s view of government is to deny the heritage of the modern Democratic party—the party that, with all its faults, has used government to humanize our industrial economy, establish the rights of labor, assure the livelihood of the farmer, combat poverty, defend the city, and strive for racial justice. To deny that heritage is to disarm us all in face of the great national problems, (“The Carter Administration has actually reduced the amount of Federal aid going to New York City”—Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And to reject the role of government is to deliver the direction of national policy to powerful and greedy private interests.

When I debate advocates of the administration, they tend, unable to defend Carter’s record, to say that he should be reelected anyway because he is a “good and decent man.” No doubt a congenital distrust of people who wear piety on their sleeve disqualifies me as an observer of those who like to tell the world bow regularly they commune with the Almighty. But, pray five times a day as Carter may, he remains a smiler with a knife. No president bas used the resources of incumbency with such a cynical aplomb to punish insurrection in the ranks—not Gerald Ford confronted by Ronald Reagan in 1976, not even the ferocious Lyndon Johnson confronted by Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in 1968. This is another factor in Carter’s political comeback. 

Can this miracle of levitation last? The Democratic presidents of this century, up to Carter, all communicated a sense of the direction in which they wanted to move the country. Carter seems to have no vision of America at all. “There is every sign,” he told Congress on January 23, 1979, “that the state of our union is sound.” Six months later, he suddenly discovered “a crisis that strikes at the very heart, soul and spirit of our national will…threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America…These changes did not happen overnight.” As usual, he was blaming someone else—this time the entire American people—for the failures of his presidency. This was the speech after his famous Camp David conclave when he summoned 130 American worthies to provide him with the vision he could not find within himself. 

“Carter believes fifty things,” James Fallows, his first presidential speechwriter, has testified, “but no one thing. He holds explicit, thorough positions on every issue under the sun, but he has no large view of the relations between them, no line indicating which goal…will take precedence over which…when goals conflict. Spelling out these choices makes the difference between a position and a philosophy, but: it is an act foreign to Carter’s mind.” Lacking any central vision, the Carter administration is alone among Democratic administrations of this century in failing to earn a popular label (New Freedom, New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier, Great Society), the effort to launch “New Foundation” proving a dismal and predestined flop. Lacking any central vision. Carter cannot impart consistency and coherence to his policies, whether at home or in the world. 

And yet he is today the odds-on favorite for renomination and reelection. Reelect Jimmy Carter? Four more years for a president “whose record of ineptitude” (1 quote Tom Wicker) “stands unmatched since Warren G, Harding, and whose campaign is based on foreign policy crises largely of his own making”? Someone must be kidding.

This article appeared in the April 12, 1980 issue of the magazine.