by Professor Bob Buzzanco
Jimmy Carter as ex-President has built homes for the poor, brokered peace agreements, overseen elections, and engaged in humanitarian acts without fail. He never cashed in like most ex-Presidents do with huge media deals or constant P.R. appearances. And that’s good on him.
But in the interests of historical accuracy, and to understand why today’s political system has (d)evolved for the past four decades or so, looking at his time as president really tells us a lot about how we got to where we are today.
I’ve been tweaking some lectures in the past few days on the latter stages of the Cold War and was reminded of the turmoil and disorder Carter brought to the global scene.
Carter might be a secular saint to many in the 21st Century, but when it came to engaging with the world during his one-term presidency, he was a war criminal. In Africa, in Asia, in Latin America, Carter created violent programs, aided terrorists, and contributed to death and destruction at a high level. His stewardship over the empire also is instructive in the ways of Liberal militarism and imperialism.
>He put the belligerent, Kissinger wannabee Zbigniew Brzezinski in charge of foreign policy and consistently made the Secretary of State, the more moderate Cyrus Vance, less important.
>Indonesia/East Timor: Contrary to the widespread belief that the U.S. “looked away” as Indonesia slaughtered tens of thousands in East Timor, an ex-Portugese colony it sought to annex, the Carter administration provided heavy support—military, financial, diplomatic—to Jakarta. Indonesian troops in East Timor “were armed roughly 90 per cent with our equipment,” the Department of State acknowledged. As they ran out of military materiel with their escalating operations, Carter authorized additional arms sales of $112 million for 1978, and Vice-President Walter Mondale visited Jakarta to announce new arms sales. Throughout, the Carter administration denied that the situation in East Timor was dangerous.
>Angola: In South Africa, Carter continued support to the apartheid regime there and, even more, made a deal with the China to send it 800 tons of military equipment which it would transfer to the notorious Jonas Savimbi-led UNITA to fight against the Marxist government in Angola, the MPLA, in battles that included air attacks, raids on refugee camps and a massacre at Kassinga in 1978 in which forces backed by the U.S. killed 800 people.
>Vietnam: Carter, who said that the U.S. had no obligation to help Vietnam after the war because “the destruction was mutual” in one of his first press conferences in 1977, then continued to assault the new socialist government in Hanoi. After Vietnam intervened in Kampuchea to oust the murderous Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge government, Carter began cooperating with China, again, to do something about it. In a January 29, 1979 conversation with Deng Xiaoping, Carter expressed his desire to punish Vietnam by encouraging other nations to reduce aid to Hanoi “as long at the Vietnamese are the invaders,” increasing military aid to Thailand, reaching out to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members to unite against the SRV, and warning the Soviet Union that continued support of Vietnam would harm relations with America.
Deng expressed his concerns over Vietnam as well and told Carter that “some punishment over a short period of time will put a restraint on Vietnamese ambitions” and that “we need your moral support in the international field.” The American president understood clearly what China intended but cautioned that “invasion of Vietnam would be very serious destabilizing action.” Deng reassured him that “we have noted what you said to us, that you want us to be restrained. It is not that we did not consider this. . . .We intend a limited action. Our troops will quickly withdraw. We’ll deal with it like a border incident.”
And so, on February 17, 1979 hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops struck along the Vietnamese border. The incursion did not last long, about a month, but it was costly to both countries as the Chinese had about 25,000 or more killed and over 40,000 wounded and the Vietnamese had about 10,000 killed. Financially, however, the toll was greater. The burden of fighting against China right after intervening in Kampuchea, and then the immense occupation costs of keeping Phnom Penh under control would plague the SRV economy for years.
>Nicaragua and the Contras: Though the Contra War and U.S. destruction in Nicaragua was mostly a Ronald Reagan product, Carter set the stage for later intervention in the summer of 1979, when the Sandinista Revolution made its final push to take over Managua and then deposed Somoza in July. Earlier, when the Sandinistas were in a larger popular front group, Carter insisted it take a more moderate position, which prompted the FSLN to leave the bloc. Then, in June, he directed Cyrus Vance, the Secretary of State, to urge Somoza to leave but be replaced by a broad-based government and an OAS peacekeeping force, conditions that would deny a Sandinista victory. Once the FSLN took over on July 19th and began receiving aid from other socialist states Carter authorized the CIA to support resistance forces in Nicaragua, the genesis of the Contras.
>Iraq: Though there has been no official documentary confirmation, various Middle Eastern politicians and diplomats have maintained that Carter had state department officials reach out to Saddam Hussein, who’d had long-standing grievances and skirmishes with the new Islamic Republic of Iran, to encourage him to ratchet up Iraqi pressure and aggression against Tehran in the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis, the failure of an armed rescue mission by the U.S., and increasing hostility from the Khomenei government. While proof of the “greenlight” to Baghdad to start the Iraq-Iran War is still speculative, it’s clear that the Reagan program to support Baghdad against Khomenei did not emerge out of nowhere.
>Afghanistan and the Mujahadeen: In Carter’s most militarist, hawkish, and ultimately consequential, move, he intervened heavily in Afghanistan after Soviet intervention there at Christmas 1979. He took a hard line on Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, which removed the bloody Hafizullah Amin government in favor of the more reformist Babrak Karmal faction, in spite of the likes of George Kennan and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal urging caution, comparing Moscow’s relation with Kabul to the American role in Guatemala.
In short order he then decided to boycott the 1980 Olympics scheduled for Moscow and dramatically increased military spending for 1980-81, providing a prologue and rationale for Reagan’s even more-immense buildups. And, as Islamic fundamentalists from throughout the region poured into Pakistan to fight against the Soviet-backed government in Kabul, he began funding these mujahadeen groups and famously sent Brzezinski to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where he told the fighters there that “God is on your side” and that they would defeat the Karmal government. This of course led to the most stark example of “Blowback” in the era—the ultimate creation of al Queda and the Taliban.
So Carter has been unique since he left office in his dedication to peace and justice, especially in supporting Palestinian rights (see his book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid) and helping broker a nuclear agreement with the North Koreans. Especially compared to many other recipients (Kissinger, Begin, Obama) his Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 was well-deserved.
But he also operated within, maintained, and strengthened American hegemony and imperialism, and global instability, during his time in office. It’s a great study in the structural imperatives of the American government, and Liberalism, and how even people with a good heart are war criminals when conducting affairs of the state.