Dilly, Dally, Soldier, Spy: Carter’s Ineptitude and the Return of Heat to the Cold War

The war in Vietnam had many casualties; lives were lost, the US economy was crippled and its credibility on the world stage was at an all-time low. It would take a man of either great bravery or foolhardiness to dispense with the realities of politicking in the midst of the Cold War. Jimmy Carter was that man. He assumed the presidency of the United States seeking to supplant the rhetoric championed by his predecessors with an increased concern for human rights issues. Carter believed that committing the United States to a human rights-oriented foreign policy would improve its damaged reputation abroad, thus ensuring himself of a second term in office and securing his legacy amongst the great humanitarians of the twentieth century. Alas, his legacy would ultimately prove to be one riddled with accusations of hypocrisy, indecision and ineffectiveness.

Yes, we can!

Carter toasting the Shah of Iran,
December 1977.

Following Carter’s inauguration in January 1977, human rights activists and the suppressed oppositions in Iran and Nicaragua could have been forgiven for thinking that the United States’ hitherto ability to turn a blind eye to the woeful human rights records of both the Shah of Iran and President Somoza of Nicaragua was drawing to an end. Their hopes would not be realised. Indeed, the sale of arms to Iran continued unrestricted whilst financial and military aid aplenty was granted to Somoza’s brutal regime. Carter declared Iran to be “an island of stability” in his New Year’s toast in December 1977, showing a distinct lack of compassion for the Iranian opposition’s plight or indeed an acknowledgement of its widespread popularity. His naivety was further exposed when he wrote a letter to the Nicaraguan President welcoming the dictator’s promise to restore human rights.

No, we can’t!

The Carter administration suffered from a battle between its two main foreign policy bureaucracies offering conflicting advice to the President. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski at turns attempted to curry favour with Carter. Vance’s more diplomatic style was favoured initially. However, as tensions in Iran and Nicaragua heightened, Carter turned to Brzezinski for advice. Brzezinski’s brash approach was such that he unashamedly suppressed information to both the President and Vance’s State Department, so eager was he for Carter to pursue his particular course of action. In the autumn of 1978, Carter pushed for the retention of Nicaragua’s brutal National Guard during a mediation effort attended by representatives of the US and Nicaragua’s Central American neighbours only for his suggestion to be rejected out of hand. By January 1979, the United States began to issue threats to Somoza with regards to the conduct of the aforementioned National Guard yet Somoza did little to entertain Carter’s reprimands. Clearly, Carter’s credibility was extremely low. Despite the surges of the guerilla Sandinistas and the lack of support from regional leaders, Somoza still felt confident enough to challenge the Carter administration’s authority, perhaps in light of the frustrations Carter was also facing in Iran at this time.

No, we can’t! Again!

The Shah fell in February 1979. Carter’s dithering foreign policy was further exposed later that year when the United States embassy in Tehran was overrun by militants and fifty-two American citizens were held hostage for a total of 444 days. Carter was now in full agreement with Brzezinski that military action should be taken and instructed a twenty-one strong naval force to descend on the Gulf. This show of US might was unsuccessful, as was an aborted secretive mission to rescue the hostages in April 1980. The lack of decisiveness that had characterised Carter’s foreign policy and his stubborn neglect of the complexity of the situation in both Iran and Nicaragua allowed his right-wing opponents the opportunity to exploit the electorate’s unease at his term in office.

A handsome man enters…

Ronald Reagan,
heightened Cold War tensions.

Reagan won the 1981 presidential election campaigning for the restoration of a more assertive approach to United States foreign policy. Reagan lambasted his immediate predecessor’s failure to sustain Iran and Nicaragua as allies and took great inspiration from Jeane Kirkpatrick’s criticisms of Carter. He bemoaned a “window of vulnerability” due to the fall of both the Shah and Somoza and subsequently increased military aid to anti-communist insurgencies in Nicaragua – the Contras – in an effort to topple the Sandinistas. At this time, Iran was subjected to an arms embargo; this did not deter Reagan from covertly arming the Islamist government in Iran. Indeed, despite the souring of US-Iranian relations since the 1979-80 hostage crisis, the National Security Council began secretly selling arms to Iran against the wishes of Congress in order to fund the Nicaraguan Contras. The resulting Iran-Contra scandal ended Reagan’s forceful albeit clandestine foreign policy approach. Nevertheless, the conviction with which the Reagan administration approached foreign policy formulation was directly influenced by its predecessor’s. It should not be inferred that Reagan’s foreign policy was anything but perverse. However, it is clear that Carter’s hesitancy and his confused approach to the Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions left the United States in too weak a position to affect a favourable outcome, thus galvanising the Right and returning the United States to a forceful foreign policy approach.

Simon Adamberry

3 comments on “Dilly, Dally, Soldier, Spy: Carter’s Ineptitude and the Return of Heat to the Cold War

  1. alexjobe says:

    Hi Simon,

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I think you did a great job in making your topic accessible to a much wider audience. As i do not know much about either Carter or Reagan politics under most circumstances i would not have chosen this blog to comment on.

    I was first taken in by the title which i assume is a reference to John le Carre’s novel ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’. As this is not only a popular book but is soon to released as a Hollywood movie with actors such as Colin Firth i though it was a good way to draw in an audience.

    Again your fourth heading, which i am again assuming is a cultural reference, this time to the show ‘Friends’ i found a really good way to engage the reader and it made me want to keep reading.

    Due to this i now have, at least in a limited capacity, knowledge on a topic i had never considered looking into before. It has also got me thinking about how interesting the change in the U.S. / Middle East relationship between the 70s / 80s as compared to now is.

    Thanks for such an interesting and though provoking blog.

    • sa41321782 says:

      Hi Alex,

      Thanks for your comments.

      I’m glad you understood the cultural references, I was worried that other than the title I was being rather vague. To be honest, I couldn’t remember that the final sub-heading was from ‘Friends’ but I’ve read it elsewhere a few times and it has always raised a smile. Thanks for jogging my memory!

  2. Mike Nugent says:

    Fantastic article!

    Jimmy Carter has always been one of my favourite US Presidents to study. As such, I like the narrative you establish with regards to the foreign policy of the US; Carter’s well meaning meandering transformed into Reagan’s perverse but direct actions. Like the previous poster, I also liked the modern culture references.

    This leads me to a question. You state that Reagan won in 1980 through campaigning on foreign policy. How much of an effect did this have on the 1980 election’s outcome? I know that part of Reagan’s base came from the Moral Majority on the issue of abortion rights, but never considered the foreign policy voters.

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