The Realpolitik of President Jimmy Carter

“I speak of Senator Mansfield precisely because he is not a breast-beating superpatriot who wants America to rule the world, but is rather an American intellectual in the best sense, a scholarly and reasonable man — the kind of man who is the terror of our age.”

– Noam Chomsky, The New York Review of Books, December 1967

Former President of the United States Jimmy Carter has cancer, metastasised to his brain and liver. He is undergoing treatment which may prolong his already long life, but sooner or later death will come to the former president. Having kept himself in the public eye more successfully and having done more meaningful work after leaving the office than any other president, his passing will produce much comment from the press and the American public.

Democrats and liberals will grieve for the “president of peace”; a decent, modest man with a quiet faith, who still lives in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, where he is a deacon at his local baptist church. Conservatives might say that he was weak, that he misjudged the mood of America when he criticised the narcissism and acquisitiveness of modern life, and the “malaise” he had diagnosed in the new American spirit. Reaganites might thank him for paving the way for the Reagan administration, which actually cherished these traits. They all might criticise his handling of the Iranian hostage crisis. Few, though, or at least few with a public voice, will deny that he was fundamentally a decent man.

I do not write to deny this either. When his nemesis Richard Nixon died in 1994, Hunter S. Thompson wrote an exhilaratingly irreverent, vicious obituary for Rolling Stone in which he insisted “the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.”[i] I do not write to get my kicks in before Carter goes down, but to show how accurate Chomsky’s words about Senator Mansfield were in 1967, and to show how reasonable men who take the wrong side in times of crisis can do more damage than they would ever have dreamed and will ever admit. Popular opinion has tended to confer upon Carter the benefit of the doubt wherever his decisions and policies were found to be not unlike the realpolitik which characterised the Nixon/Kissinger administration. I hope to show that Carter tended in this direction so habitually that to ascribe it to mere error would stretch the generosity and credulity of other reasonable people.

The political rise of Carter is itself instructive in understanding many of the decisions he was to make as President. As a member of the Georgia senate from 1963 to 1967, Carter made a name for himself as a fairly pro-integrationist moderate. Back in 1954 as a peanut farmer he had incurred the wrath of the virulently racist White Citizen’s Council when he refused to join them. The LA Times recently reported that the Council’s representative, the local chief of police, offered to pay his $5 membership fee for him if he couldn’t afford it. Carter replied “I’ve got $5, and I would flush it down the toilet before I’d give it to you.”[ii] His willingness to stand up for his principles lasted into his senate years, helping to repeal state laws which aimed to obstruct African American citizens from voting. When his church took a vote on allowing blacks to worship there, only three members dissented against the decision to continue the whites-only policy. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were responsible for two of those votes.[iii]

When the national civil rights movement started to effect positive, if slow, change for blacks in America, the political evolution of Jimmy Carter began. The conservative white south began to lose trust in the Democratic party which had long been its champion. The party of Calhoun had become the party of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan who had long assured southern voters, businessmen and politicians that he was their man had, in the view of many, sold out the south in order to secure his own presidency. This put men like Carter in a precarious position. He could no longer be sure that he would win elections in Georgia by sheer virtue of being a Democrat. White southerners now wanted assurance that Democratic candidates were their kind of Democrats, not one of Johnson’s machiavellian pragmatists.

After an unsuccessful tilt at election to the office of Governor in 1966, Carter learned a valuable, if cynical lesson. The winner of that election was Lester Maddox, a segregationist who won on a race-baiting platform. Carter, we may generously assume, was repelled by Maddox’s views, but the campaign which followed showed that he was seduced by his methods. At the time, Georgia’s constitution forbade the Governor from succeeding himself, and so Carter took aim at the 1970 election, knowing Maddox would be vacating the office.

One of the main policies on which Carter campaigned for that election was opposition to desegregation busing. He courted Maddox in order to receive his endorsement and, upon receiving it, declared that “He has brought a standard of forthright expression and personal honesty to the governor’s office, and I hope to live up to his standard.” Carter attacked his opponent in the Democratic primaries, Carl Sanders, for paying tribute to the late Martin Luther King, and distributed photographs of Sanders in the company of two black baseball players who played for the Atlanta Braves[iv], a team part-owned by Sanders. Maddox, in contrast, had used his powers as governor to deny King the honour of lying in state at the Georgia Capitol. Maddox was to serve as Lieutenant Governor under Carter when he was elected. The Atlanta Constitution, the newspaper with the highest circulation in the state, described Carter as an “ignorant, racist, backward, ultra-conservative, red-necked South Georgia peanut farmer.”[v] The tactic worked, however, and having convinced the whites of Georgia that he was a segregationist, Carter was elected Governor. “You won’t like my campaign, but you will like my administration” he told Vernon Jordan, the prominent black leader of the National Urban League.

It’s difficult to know if Carter’s manipulation was of benefit to the people of Georgia in the end. He served a reforming, integrationist term as Governor, much like Sanders did in the late 60s, and had more or less completely shed the image attributed to him by the Atlanta Constitution by 1975, when he started his campaign for the presidency. What remains in question is whether or not this is the stuff of which democracy is – or ought to be – made.

“Because we are free, we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere. Our moral sense dictates a clear-cut preference for those societies which share with us an abiding respect for individual human rights.”

– President Carter’s inaugural address, January 1977

Once elected to the presidency, Carter made much of his dedication to the cause of human rights and world peace. He was also keen to maintain strategic relationships with certain regimes which were not quite as concerned with human rights, whether hypothetically or in reality. Inheriting a mutually beneficial friendship with the Shah of Iran from President Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Carter found himself forced to choose between the protected oil interests the US enjoyed in Iran, and the more conceptual human rights interests the Carter administration had placed centre stage; rights which were increasingly meaning less and less for those living under the Shah’s regime.

In his thorough volume, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, Noam Chomsky cites Martin Ennals, secretary-general of Amnesty International, who observed that “No country in the world has a worse human rights record than Iran.” In contrast, Carter declared at a banquet in Tehran that “Iran under the great leadership of the Shah is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership, and to the respect, admiration and love which your people give to you.” The supposedly liberal press in America agreed with Carter. “The saddest aspect of developments in Iran”, the New Republic lamented, was that the Shah was “not repressive enough”.[vi]

Events soon unfolded in Iran which did indeed disturb the free press and the public, but it was when eight American servicemen died trying to rescue American citizens during the Iranian hostage crisis, not when the American president sent American money and American weapons to be used to kill Iranian civilians engaging in democratic protest. Nor was Carter much affected by what little criticism he received for aiding President Suharto of Indonesia, as the CIA-backed leader engaged in what many now regard as genocide in East Timor. With up to 90% of Indonesia’s oil controlled by U.S. companies at the time, it is perhaps not difficult to understand why.[vii] With his inaugural address, President Carter had perhaps set higher standards for himself than he felt able to keep.

A problem which Carter did not inherit, but in fact willingly embroiled himself in, was the civil war in El Salvador. Conscious of the situation in Nicaragua, where a popular uprising led to the ousting of the violently repressive, formerly US-backed Somoza regime and the emergence of the avowedly socialist Sandinista government, Carter resolved to back the military junta which seized power in El Salvador in 1979. Early concessions to popular demand, such as land reforms, were swiftly torpedoed by right-wing elements. The few civilian members of the junta left in protest at the increasingly authoritarian stance of the leading military figures, and to the violence they were using to quell leftist uprisings. Opposition coalesced into guerrilla groups which spread throughout the countryside. As a result of their unusual success, Carter had decided to try to work with the Sandinistas[viii], but withheld aid to Nicaragua when it was determined that they were covertly supporting the Salvadoran guerillas. He had no intention of working with the rebels in El Salvador. He had the evidence he needed that a creeping communist menace was spreading through Central America. US political orthodoxy demanded global containment. The principles of the cold war had been laid out by George F. Kennan in his famous Long Telegram in 1946. Chief among them was this: “Relentless battle must be waged against socialist and social-democratic leaders abroad.” The champion of human rights and liberty duly sent money and weapons to the military junta.[ix]

One of the main problems faced by both the guerrillas and the innocent civilian population during this period was that they were assailed on two fronts; firstly, by the official forces of the junta itself and, secondly, by death squads of various stripes and colours, loosely affiliated with the regime. Even in the early years the distinction between the two entities were blurred. One notable individual who straddled them was a senior intelligence officer on the far-right of the Salvadoran political spectrum, by the name of Roberto D’Aubuisson. An alumnus of the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia,[x] D’Aubuisson was fanatically anti-communist and felt that the military regime was not repressive and violent enough to restore order to El Salvador. In 1981 he spoke of his belief that it would take 200,000 to 300,000 deaths to purge El Salvador of the leftist threat.[xi] The intelligence-gathering skills he acquired helped him compile a list of targets with which he was able to get to work on notching up those numbers.

The violence doled out by both the National Guard and the death squads under the influence of D’Aubuisson led to outrage in the country, expressed most notably in the sermons of Óscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador and a conservative mugged by harsh reality. Though he denied that he was much interested in liberation theology in the sense in which other, Marx-influenced Latin American priests used the term, Romero quickly became an outspoken defender of the innocent civilians of the country and an equally outspoken opponent of state violence.

In February 1980, exasperated by Carter’s financial and military support of the regime, Romero wrote to him, pleading for the U.S. to cease supporting the agents of anti-democratic state power. He warned “The contribution of your government instead of promoting greater justice and peace in El Salvador will without doubt sharpen the injustice and repression against the organizations of the people which repeatedly have been struggling to gain respect for their most fundamental human rights.” Carter did not reply to Romero’s letter but his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, did. Describing the junta – whose forces had murdered at least 50 peaceful demonstrators in one incident only two months earlier – as “moderate and reformist”, Vance lectured Romero on the love of democracy and liberty which the Carter administration shared with the Salvadoran regime. Assuring Romero that any military assistance would be directed specifically towards enhancing the “professionalism” of the armed forces, the better to maintain order “with a minimum of lethal force”, Vance concluded that “The United States will not interfere in the internal affairs of El Salvador[…] nevertheless… we shall continue to do what we can to respond to the legitimate requests of the revolutionary junta”.

Three weeks later, one day after delivering a passionate and rousing sermon in which he called on the military to cease the killings of innocents, Romero took mass at a hospital chapel in San Salvador. He was shot through the heart by an assassin, sent by Roberto D’Aubuisson[xii], while administering the eucharist. Fortunately for the Carter administration, D’Aubuisson had recently resigned from the security forces. The argument that he was not acting as an agent of the state may not stand up to scrutiny, however. In 2004 The Guardian claimed that declassified CIA documents indicate the assassin himself was a serving member of the National Police.[xiii] Awkwardly for President Carter, government snipers fired upon the mourners at the Archbishop’s funeral, killing more than 30 people. The world’s press and political establishment were horrified. President Carter responded by sending $5 million in aid to the regime. His commitment to funding the junta wavered only briefly when, that December, four American nuns were raped and murdered by members of the National Guard. Three of the five soldiers convicted of the atrocity were trained by the U.S. at the School of the Americas. Aid was swiftly stopped. It was resumed after a politically tasteful period of two weeks.[xiv]

The Latin American policy of the sociopathic Reagan administration was to enjoy a fair amount of bipartisan congressional support. For this we must give President Carter due credit. Reagan was more openly contemptuous of those perturbed by the Salvadoran regime’s human rights abuses, of course. After all, Carter had at least made a show of stopping aid after the murder of the nuns, albeit briefly. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, simply blamed them for their own horrific deaths, insisting darkly, preposterously, “The nuns were not just nuns; the nuns were political activists.”[xv] Nevertheless, Carter reinforced the notion that “liberal” Democratic politicians could simply wait for any given ethical storm to blow over and then retake the moral high ground. He repeatedly violated his inauguration pledges at great cost to innocent lives, affirmed that “containment” was still the order of the day, and emerged with his reputation for favouring diplomacy over bloodshed more or less intact.

Much has been made of Carter’s post-presidency, which is, with scant competition, probably the most impressive of modern times. The Carter Foundation has by all accounts done real, good work in helping to eliminate various diseases in third world and developing countries. It has monitored elections for freeness and fairness and pronounced legitimate even those elections (the election of Nicolás Maduro as President of Venezuela, for example) which the United States would prefer to smear as (communist) fixes. He has criticised President Obama’s drone programme, invoking sound logical and ethical reasoning of precisely the sort that could build a fine case against Carter’s own actions as President.[xvi] He has defended Edward Snowden and even observed that the human rights violations he exposed outweigh the technical violations of U.S. law he may have committed.[xvii] In other words, Carter has acknowledged that there exists a higher morality than that of official United States policy, and that it must be protected. This is actually pretty radical by the standards of an American politician, never mind a President. He has declared Israel’s policies in Palestine to be “a system of apartheid”. John Kerry once said this aloud by mistake and felt the obliged to apologise. That Carter now finds himself capable of accusing a U.S. ally of being “totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights”[xviii] stands in stark contrast to his instinctive alignments with oppressive state powers during his presidency. It is surely to be welcomed.

Nevertheless, even in the later chapters of his political life, Carter has often been found wanting. Not all of those elections scrutinised and declared legitimate by The Carter Foundation passed the tests of other observers. In 1990, Joaquin Balaguer’s victory in the Dominican Republic presidential election was declared fair by Carter, though allegations of electoral fraud were rife. Carter had been an ally of Balaguer during his second term, which was characterised by repression and extra-judicial killings, praising him in 1977 for “changing his own country and his own people away from a former totalitarian government to one of increasingly pure democracy.”[xix] What qualified Balaguer for this praise appears to have been that he was quantitatively, if not qualitatively, less murderous than Rafael Trujillo, his predecessor, and that, like Carter himself, Balaguer preached better than he practiced. Despite Carter’s endorsement, Balaguer’s final term was cut short in 1996 on the grounds that it was won fraudulently.[xx]

Again in 1990, Carter tried to convince the pro-democracy candidate Jean-Bertrand Aristide to drop out of the Haitian presidential race, days before he won a resounding victory. Aristide was deposed soon after in a military coup and his supporters were subjected to a murderous terror campaign, led by one Emmanuel Constant, who was on the CIA’s payroll by the agency’s own admission. According to an article by FAIR in 1994, Carter expressed his doubt that the military was even guilty of human rights violations.[xxi] The Organization of American States announced an embargo on arms, oil and trade, which the U.S. ignored, sending 5,000 to 10,000 weapons to Constant’s “Front for the Advancement of and Progress of Haiti” death squads, with help from Carter’s old friend Balaguer in the Dominican Republic.[xxii] The Clinton administration was later to acknowledge that they “conducted a reign of terror, executing children, raping women, killing priests.”[xxiii] Realising they had not only backed the wrong side but were being seen to have backed the wrong side, Carter and the Clinton administration did a volte-face and restored Aristide to office, all too late to make much difference to those whose blood had been shed.

Carter’s reputation is a peculiar thing. When he left office his presidency was generally deemed a failure, yet few of his harshest critics (with obvious notable exceptions like the ever-reliable Noam Chomsky) would have listed any of the above examples in their list of charges against him. And as his reputation has been rehabilitated since leaving the White House, his questionable foreign interventions still arouse surprisingly little comment. Those on the radical left who draw attention to these misdeeds are summarily dismissed as cranks by the right and accused of deflecting attention from the real enemy by the liberal soft-left, if indeed they are heard at all. Thus he enjoys an enviable position in the political firmament. Contrasted with the amoral cynicism of Nixon and the idiotic fanaticism of Reagan, Carter’s quiet dignity may be enough to convince the world that his transgressions were made in good faith. The reader is invited to imagine a similar defence being made on behalf of America’s enemies, and the short shrift it would receive.


Hunter S. Thompson, “He Was A Crook”, Rolling Stone (June 16, 1994). Online:

[ii]    Ari Berman, “How Jimmy Carter Championed Civil Rights – and Ronald Reagan Didn’t”, Los Angeles Times (September 3, 2015). Online:

[iii]   Miller Center, “Jimmy Carter: Life Before the Presidency. Online:

[iv]   Saul Friedman, “Book Says President No Civil Rights Leader”, The Evening Independent, (September 29, 1980). Online:,3611856&hl=en

[v]    Miller Center, “Jimmy Carter: Life Before the Presidency”. Online:

[vi]   Noam Chomsky, “The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism: The Political Economy of Human Rights Volume I” (Boston: South End Press, 1979), p. 13-15

[vii]  John Gittings, “Suharto”, The Guardian, (January 28, 2008). Online:

[viii] Lee H Hamilton, Daniel K. Inouye, “Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran/Contra Affair” p. 27

[ix]   U.S. Department of State, “Milestones 1977-1980”, Online:

[x]    Ed. Cecilia Menjivar, Nestor Rodriguez, “When States Kill” (Texas: University of Texas Press), p. 313

[xi]   W. John Green, “A History of Political Murder in Latin America”, (New York: State University of New York Press, 2015), p. 113

[xii]  Report of the UN Truth Commission (1 April 1993) Online:

[xiii] Tom Gibb, “The Killing of Oscar Romero was one of the most notorious crimes of the cold war. Was the CIA to blame?”, The Guardian, (23 March 2000), Online:

[xiv] Robert Pear, “Congress Is As Skeptical As Ever on Salvador Aid, The New York Times, (January 14, 1990), Online:

[xv]  Lars Schoultz, “National Security and United States Policy Towards Latin America”, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 103

[xvi] James Meikle, “Jimmy Carter Savages US Foreign Policy Over Drone Strikes”, The Guardian (25 June 2012), Online:

[xvii]       Nick Wing, “Jimmy Carter Defends Edward Snowden, Says NSA Spying Has Compromised Nation’s Democracy”, The Huffington Post, (18 July, 2013), Online:

[xviii]      Jimmy Carter, “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid”, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), p. 215

[xix] “Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Jimmy Carter 1977”, (United States Government Printing Office, 1977) p. 1551

[xx]  Adrian Karitnycky, “Freedom in the World: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties, 2000-2001”, (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2001), p. 178

[xxi] Jeff Cohen, Norman Soloman, “Jimmy Carter and Human Rights: Behind the Media Myth”, (21 September, 1994), Online:

[xxii]       Justin Podur, “Haiti’s New Dictatorship”, (London: Plutopress, 2012), p. 19

[xxiii]      Douglas Jehl, “Showdown in Haiti”, The New York Times (September 16, 1994), Online:

Jamie Davidson writes about politics and history. He studied neither of those fields at Goldsmiths, University of London and now lives and works in Shropshire, England. He can be reached at and @JW_Davidson