• The Carter comparison
    September 30,2012

    For many years when Republicans wanted to denigrate a Democratic presidential candidate or the president himself, they have called him another Jimmy Carter. Accordingly, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, have been doing a long riffs likening President Obama to Carter.

    It’s a fact that Carter was a one-term president. But Carter was not a feckless weakling, as he is so often portrayed by Republicans. Carter effectively managed relations with the Soviet Union under the careful eye of his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzesinski, who was very tough, especially on the Soviets. Carter was anything but warm and fuzzy — which may actually have been part of his problem in getting re-elected.

    Most Americans forget that if it had not been for the dogged, tenacious Carter, there would never have been a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel — among the most significant diplomatic achievements of the Cold War era. Not only did it dramatically increase Israel’s security, because without Egypt the Arabs were not a serious threat. Without that treaty, the Middle East could well have become the most likely place for the outbreak of World War III. Instead, with this peace agreement, the door was slammed on any future significant Soviet involvement in the region, which by any definition was a remarkable achievement.

    What Americans remember about Carter is the Iranian hostage crisis, which consumed the final year of his presidency and made him appear impotent. As it happens, I contributed to that image. I was the State Department correspondent when the American diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran in November 1979. For a while my colleague Ted Koppel and I shared the main diplomatic story of the day. But fairly early on in the crisis, ABC News began a 30-minute program each evening at 11:30 p.m. called, “America Held Hostage.” which Ted would soon anchor and on which I appeared most nights.

    I later learned that then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance told one of his senior aides that if I was doing a story each night I might as well get it right. Apparently because of that, each day I learned a great deal about the administration’s diplomatic efforts.

    Yet in retrospect, I think that decision ultimately was Carter’s undoing, in part because our broadcast had become a major factor in keeping the crisis front and center of America and the world’s attention. If, after a couple of weeks the president had simply said, I am doing everything in my power to free the hostages, but we are not going to talk about it in public any more, the networks and the other news organizations would have howled like banshees.

    Actually, the news media had become dependent on administration cooperation in reporting this story. For the first time, the daily briefings at the White House, State Department and Pentagon had been opened up to daily live radio and television coverage. This provided news organizations with much useful raw material to keep the story going. If the administration had simply stopped talking to reporters about the hostages, we would not have been able to sustain “America Held Hostage” indefinitely. And if the news coverage had waned, the hostages would have lost much of their propaganda value and they might have been released long before the time they were finally permitted to leave Iran — at the precise moment Ronald Reagan took the oath of office in January 1981. This, of course, was Jimmy Carter’s ultimate humiliation.

    It has long been speculated, although never proven, that this outcome was the result of collusion between Reagan officials and the mullahs in Tehran. But, as the saying goes, what goes around comes around. And this is how the New York Daily News reported the biggest story of the 2012 election campaign so far.

    “Jimmy Carter’s grandson was tired of hearing the ex-President used as GOP punch line — and his act of revenge has hobbled Mitt Romney’s campaign.

    “In an odd twist of fate and history, it was James Carter 4th who unearthed the secret video of Romney at a Florida fund-raiser in which the Republican nominee demeaned the ‘47 percent’ of Americans who are ‘dependent upon the government, who believe that they are victims.’”

    Certainly, it was a twist of fate. I would call it poetic justice. For although he may have mishandled the hostage crisis, Carter’s presidency achieved far more in maintaining America’s national security than seems likely if the Romney-Ryan ticket should be elected.

    The violent anti-American demonstrations across the Muslim world over the past couple of weeks, set off by a highly offensive made-in-America video which insults the Prophet Mohammed and was exploited by ultra-conservative Muslim extremists, have prompted many pundits to suddenly elevate foreign policy as an election issue. I would not minimize what has been happening. Four American diplomats were killed in these riots, including the widely respected U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. By all accounts he was the perfect kind of diplomat who combined expertise in the Middle East with a passion for engagement with people of all walks of life in his host country. His murder is a sad and serious loss to America.

    But that said, I see no tangible evidence that we are going to have a serious debate about foreign policy between now and November. That’s because serious debates require a discussion of credible policy choices. Instead, what we have heard from Gov. Romney are nothing but old neo-con Cold War slogans and heavy breathing. Yet if a President Romney were actually to follow through on his hard line with Iran, if he pursued policies based on his stated belief that the Palestinians don’t want peace and if he cut off aid to Egypt if it didn’t do his bidding, the turmoil we have seen in recent days in the Muslim world would be child’s play compared to the catastrophes that would surely follow.

    Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.

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