The Carter Presidency
by Jimmy Carter.
Bantam. 622 pp. $22.50.
by Hamilton Jordan.
Putnam. 431 pp. $16.95.
Rarely has a President passed so quickly and so thoroughly from public memory as has Jimmy Carter; his memoirs, Keeping Faith, are unlikely to change the situation. The picture of the President that emerges from this overwritten yet revealing volume is one of a small man, burdened by feelings of guilt about America and its role in the world, obsessed by detail yet totally lacking in an overall view of the country, let alone of the larger world.
Carter’s view of us was for all practical purposes the view of the Left, couched in religious terms. In his Inaugural Address he wanted to cite a verse from Chronicles: “If My people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” At the time, the sins Carter had in mind were those he believed had been carried out by Henry Kissinger, the CIA, and the Watergate crowd:
Instead of promoting freedom and democratic principles, our government seemed to believe that in any struggle with evil, we could not compete effectively unless we played by the same rules or lack of rules as the evildoers. I was deeply troubled by the lies our people had been told; our exclusion from the shaping of American political and military policy in Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, and other countries; and other embarrassing activities of our government, such as the CIA’s role in plotting murder and other crimes.
Later, he would alter his vision somewhat, and expand the crisis of the American spirit to a “malaise” affecting the populace as a whole.
Carter’s view, shared by most of the major figures in his administration (with the exceptions of Zbigniew Brzezinski and James Schlesinger, who were also the only ones who gave the President good advice on Iran), was that the United States had to be restored to moral purity. Accordingly, he authorized a series of actions that led to a great purge of the CIA, restrained the ability of this country to help friends throughout the world, systematically rejected proposals for a serious increase in our military power, and turned the other cheek to the Russians when they sent Cuban troops into Africa. It was not until the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 that Carter suddenly revised his view of the Russians, and started to take limited counteraction.
Given the “moral” vision at the heart of Carter’s politics, one might have expected to hear a good deal about all this. But there is hardly a word here of the Horn of Africa, of Cuban troops, of the “purification” and “modernization” of the CIA, of international terrorism, of the fall of Somoza and the installation of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or of the factors that drove Carter at the last to reestablish a military-aid program to the beleaguered government of El Salvador. Instead we are treated to what used to be called “chronicles” rather than history: a series of events, each discussed in isolation, with no suggestion of causality and no sense of the whole.
Even as chronicles, Keeping Faith is a disappointment. Much of the information is incorrect. For example, Carter claims that when President Sadat of Egypt announced his trip to Jerusalem, he, Carter, “did what I could to get foreign leaders to refrain from criticism until the results of Sadat’s visit could be assessed.” In reality, for several days the administration deprecated Sadat’s initiative since it had undercut the Carter-Vance scheme to reconvene the Geneva conference on the Middle East, complete with Soviet participation.
Again, Carter totally rewrites the history of his disastrous neutron-bomb decision. In his version, the Germans “played footsie” by asking that the U.S. commit itself to production of the weapon while at the same time insisting that at least one other European country agree to accept it before they would announce their own willingness to take the weapon on German soil. So, according to Carter, the United States “deferred production,” using the threat of production “to induce additional restraints among the Soviets in other arms-control negotiations.” In fact, the United States leaned heavily on West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to take the weapon (provided, of course, that another European country did so too); then, when he finally agreed, Carter abruptly decided not to go ahead after all.
Carter also suffers from selective amnesia on the two great scandals of his administration: Lancegate and Billygate. To judge from his account, one would think that Bert Lance, Carter’s close friend who was forced to resign as director of the Office of Management and Budget, was singled out by the Washington Post for special punishment simply because he was a small-town banker, and that Billy’s exertions on behalf of the Libyan government were simply the acts of an as-yet uncured alcoholic. There is no mention that Billy was an intermediary with the Libyans in an attempt to resolve the Iranian hostage crisis, or that Billy met in Tripoli with the likes of Yasir Arafat and George Habash.
All these faults aside, Keeping Faith is to be esteemed for its candor. The two longest sections of the book deal with Camp David and the Iranian crisis. The first shows Carter at his best: an honest broker, tireless worker, willing to take a real risk against heavy odds. In the light of the achievement represented by Camp David, one can even overlook his scarcely concealed dislike of Menachem Begin, and his general sourness toward Israel.
The Iranian account is quite different, and shows Carter at his very worst. Nowhere is there even a hint that he understands the importance of the fall of the Shah, or the impact of the hostage crisis on America’s standing with the rest of the world.
In Carter’s eyes, the Iranian crisis was traceable to the “Shah’s single-minded pursuit of his own goals,” which had created opposition on the part of “the intelligentsia and others who desired more participation in the political processes of Iran.” One would hardly know from reading this that what removed the Shah was a reactionary religious movement led by mullahs who wanted to undo any semblance of modern government and return Iran to the Middle Ages.
Carter pretends that the United States spoke unambiguously to the Shah, encouraging him “to hang firm and to count on our backing.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Shah received constantly conflicting signals from Washington; on the one hand he was being scolded to liberalize his regime and improve “human rights” in Iran, and on the other hand he was reassured that anything he wanted to do was all right wih us.
Carter misdescribes the mission of General Robert Huyser, who was sent to Iran in the final days of the Shah in order to organize a military coup, should one be judged desirable, or to restrain the military, should that be Washington’s preference. Out of such confusion, and the chaos in the streets, came the collapse of the monarchy and of the armed forces as well. Carter claims that the Iranian generals came to Ambassador Sullivan with their coup plans, that Secretary of State Cyrus Vance opposed such a measure (true enough), and that Huyser felt confident the army would support the successor regime of Shahpur Bakhtiar. What really happened was that the administration stood by, hoping for an acceptable outcome but unwilling to dirty American hands. Characteristically, the situation in Iran was considered abstractly, without any thought to consequences throughout the Middle East or to the impact on our other allies.
For a long time Carter continued to believe that eventually things would work out with Khomeini. (This belief was based on his knowledge that the Ayatollah was a “religious leader.”) It also took him a long time to recognize that Khomeini was the only figure who mattered in the revolutionary government of Iran. Throughout the fourteen months that followed the seizure of the American embassy, “negotiations” were carried out through some of the most bizarre channels imaginable, and always on the premise that it was best not to use military power to achieve national objectives. Typically, in the end, when military force was adopted in an attempt to rescue the hostages, it was insufficient; typically too, when Cyrus Vance—described by Carter as the Cabinet member closest to him and to Rosalyn—resigned over the rescue attempt, he cited as a reason the excess of violence involved.
To be sure, Iran was difficult to understand, especially since no one in the government had read Khomeini’s books. The Soviet Union was better studied in Washington, and therefore should not have represented a major mystery, but when Carter left for his SALT summit with Brezhnev in Vienna, he was equipped with some truly disabling advice, courtesy of Averell Harriman: “The system for acquiring and exchanging information within the Soviet Union is very poor, so Brezhnev will not be adequately briefed on some of the American attitudes and concerns.”
The show Brezhnev put on in Vienna should have been sufficient to demonstrate that the Russians knew more about Americans than Americans understood about Soviet leaders. At one point Brezhnev put his hand on Carter’s shoulder and said, “If we do not succeed, God will not forgive us.” This little touch melted Carter, who immediately became solicitous of Brezhnev’s health. It remained for Gromyko to give the act away the following day, when he made a sarcastic remark about God’s watching over the negotiations. Nevertheless, the glow apparently lasted until the invasion of Afghanistan.
Even after Afghanistan, however—indeed, even today, at his present remove from the White House—Garter cannot bring himself to acknowledge that the vision of the world he carried with him when he entered office was systematically wrong. Nor does he seem to recognize that during his four years in office, his own position changed considerably.
Greater insight into Carter’s Presidency is to be had from Hamilton Jordan, who, as White House chief of staff, well understood the shortcomings of his boss. Crisis is the story of Jordan’s adventures during the last year of the Carter administration, including his experiences as the secret back-channel for contacts with the “government” of Iran following the seizure of the hostages and his activities in the internal politics of the 1982 national campaign.
Crisis is a consistently interesting book even if, in the passages on Iran, Jordan shows himself to be dealing with a world of intrigue and evil that it is beyond his capacities to comprehend. Much of what he says about Iran and the United States is “party-line” liberalism: he picks up a feeling of guilt over a presumed nefarious American past, finds stylish leftist professors to be the most reliable analysts of Iranian events, and naively accepts the likes of Sadeq Ghotbzadeh as interlocutor in Teheran. His book reveals to what level the diplomacy of a great nation can be reduced when it fails to address a crisis seriously. For several months, if Jordan is to be believed, he was our only instrument for gaining the release of our hostages, flying the North Atlantic on the Concorde and meeting with two even unlikelier intermediaries than he: a left-wing Parisian lawyer and an exiled Argentine Peronist. It was not until this initiative failed that Carter decided to attempt the rescue mission.
Crisis gives us a richer portrait of the Carter Presidency than does Keeping Faith. Unfortunately, the administration that emerges from its pages is every bit as hapless as its critics have imagined.