Rehabilitating Jimmy Carter’s Middle East Policy


Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 2021, pp. 55-56

Waging Peace

As a result of his determined efforts at the Camp David summit in 1978, President Jimmy Carter successfully negotiated “a rational path forward to Palestinian autonomy and a two-state solution,” but he was betrayed by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who reneged on the deal.

Distinguished historian Kai Bird, the author of a new biography of Carter, offered the above assessment in a June 17 Brookings Institution webinar conducted by Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the think tank.

Contrary to the argument that Carter settled for a separate Israeli peace with Egypt, thereby abandoning the Palestinian cause, Bird’s research reveals that Begin agreed to “some kind of self-rule” for Palestinians as well as a freeze on construction of new Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. However, the Likud leader “reneged and walked back from what he had agreed to within days.”

Bird, the author of myriad historical studies, argues Carter was ahead of his time in his support for Palestinians, a cause that today is widely embraced in the United States but was—and remains—opposed by Israel and its lobby (which unfortunately went unmentioned by Bird) at the time of Camp David.

Carter’s effort to pressure Israel to negotiate, which stemmed partly from his religious roots and the attendant desire to bring peace to the “holy land,” contributed to his electoral defeat in 1980. In that election Carter won only 45 percent of the typically pro-Democratic Jewish vote, a sharp decline from the 71 percent he achieved in 1976.

Nearly three decades after his presidency, Carter once again called on Israel to negotiate a two-state solution in his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Today, Israel is widely and accurately recognized as an apartheid state, but Carter’s use of the term in 2006 proved “highly controversial,” including, Bird pointed out, the former president being saddled with the “grossly unfair charge” of anti-Semitism. Bird recounted that Carter’s principal adviser on the Middle East and several trustees of the Carter Center resigned over his bold insistence on including the term “apartheid” in the book’s title.

Carter became “a victim of historical circumstances” in 1980 amid the 444-day Iran hostage crisis, which was deeply rooted in historical forces that, as it happened, erupted on Carter’s watch. Bird argued that Carter initially opposed providing sanctuary to the Shah of Iran on the fallacious grounds that he could only receive cancer treatments in the U.S. David Rockefeller, who had millions of dollars in loans to the Shah at stake, along with Henry Kissinger and others, badgered Carter, who “finally agreed” to admit Shah Reza Pahlavi. The shah arrived in the United States in Nov. 1979, thereby fueling the Shi’i fundamentalist forces who ultimately came to power in the Iranian Revolution.

Bird declared that Carter also initially opposed the aborted and disastrous Iran hostage rescue mission of April 1980. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski “nagged Carter into the helicopter rescue mission,” Bird averred, even though the “hopeless” Operation Eagle Claw had almost no chance of success and would have produced a “bloodbath” had the military strike force made it to Tehran instead of the mission being aborted.

This series of events, along with economic issues and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in Dec. 1979, severely compromised Carter’s political standing. However, as Bird pointed out, to ensure the election of Ronald Reagan, his campaign manager and later CIA Director William Casey secretly flew to Madrid, Spain, to meet with representatives of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to preclude an “October surprise,” a scenario in which Carter would successfully negotiate the release of the 52 American hostages and at the same time boost his political standing prior to the election. Promising military support to Iran in the conflict that had erupted with Iraq, Casey gave “a green light to the Iranians not to make a deal” on the release of the hostages in what Bird judged an “outrageous example of independent diplomacy undermining U.S. foreign policy.”

The hostages were eventually released on the day Reagan took office, Jan. 20, 1981. Bird added that Casey’s partisan secret mission “planted the seeds” for the Iran-Contra scandal, which surfaced in 1986.

Bird’s insights into the Carter presidency extend beyond Middle East policy and likely will make his book—The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter—an essential read. Bird clearly admires his subject and predicts that over time as more evidence emerges from the sources he has mined, especially Carter’s copious diary entries and memoranda, that the 39th president will ascend from his relatively low standing to a higher ranking of overall presidential efficacy. In any case, Bird argued that Carter was “probably the most intelligent, well-read president in the twentieth century, and of course he was the most decent.”

Walter L. Hixson


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