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!
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…
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.