Monday, February 15, 2010
The Gadson Review is back! Today is President’s day, and normally we celebrate our great Presidents like Washington and Lincoln. But I want to dedicate this post to rehabilitating the image of an unfairly maligned President: Jimmy Carter. Many historians rank him “below average” in surveys. Many people remember him as a weakling and a bad President.
I actually think Carter had some significant achievements, especially in foreign policy. He negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel. To this day, the two countries remain at peace. In fact, the Camp David accords might be the most tangible American accomplishment in Middle Eastern diplomacy in recent memory. He also signed SALT II with the Soviet Union, which further decreased tensions between the two countries.
He is most often criticized for a couple of things. The first is the serious economic stagflation that occurred during his term. But that is surely not his fault. The economy was in poor shape throughout much of the 1970s. Stagflation started under Nixon, and was a result of things outside a President’s direct control like energy shortages and oil embargoes. To the extent Carter could do anything about the high inflation, he did, by appoint a chairman of the Fed, Paul Volcker who aggressively combated it.
The second is the Iranian hostage crisis. But let’s remember that no American President had had to deal with a similar situation. The American people had never seen so many fellow citizens kidnapped and of course reacted negatively when they did. But the question to ask becomes what should Carter have done? Less than a decade after the Vietnam War, sending in a huge military force was probably politically untenable. Besides, would fighting a war against Iran really have been wise at that point in time? I’ve yet to hear a historian argue that it would have been. So Carter exercised the two realistic options available to him: rescue attempts and negotiations. The rescue attempt failed largely because of equipment failures which obviously weren’t his fault. Eventually though, he was able to negotiate the release of hostages.
In some ways, Carter was simply unlucky. He was President at a bad time. That does not make him a bad President, and it shouldn’t stop us from celebrating his achievements, or taking a fuller measure of the man 30 years later. Carter may not have been great, but he was hardly the failure many remember him as. He does not deserve the scorn some commentators (especially conservatives) heap on him.