For a deeper discussion of this issue, check out Green and Red Podcast’s episode on Jimmy Carter as Liberal Saint/Neo-Liberal War Criminal.
Jimmy Carter’s family recently put out a public statement that he was in home hospice, after years of fighting, and beating, cancer and other ailments. Since then there’s been a national outpouring of thanks for Carter’s lifetime of service, and it’s been well-deserved. His post-presidency has been admirable, indeed inspirational in many ways. He’s helped build housing for the poor, spoken out against the power of the business class, opposed wars and brokered peace agreements, overseen foreign elections, and even called out Israel’s apartheid regime in Palestine. No representative of the ruling class, like an ex-president, has ever shown such an epiphany and transformed himself into a model of progressive ideas like Carter has. And he deserves praise for it.
Carter’s legacy, however, is not so clean-cut. His admirable post-presidency in many ways was a clean-up operation for the ways he transformed American politics and the damage he did as president. The inspirational ex-president was, as president, a pivotal figure in the abandonment of New Deal policies, helped give birth to Neo-Liberal austerity, made the country much more conservative, and mostly followed an aggressive foreign policy that reinvigorated the Cold War. Carter’s entire career needs to be discussed when considering his life, not in order to smear him out of anger or caprice, but to point out that even someone treated like a secular saint since the 1980s acted like a typical representative of the ruling class, an interventionist and an oligarch, when he held state power.
It’s an important lesson for all, especially the Left. Too often the Left looks for heroes, like it has with Carter. Left media is currently giving immense amounts of space to conspiracy theorists hoping to make us believe that John F. Kennedy was killed by his own “deep state” because he was going to withdraw from Vietnam and end the Cold War (see “John F. Kennedy Goes Hollywood: Oliver Stone’s Fastastic History” https://afflictthecomfortable.org/2022/04/30/john-f-kennedy-goes-hollywood-oliver-stones-fantastic-history/). More recently the fans of Bernie Sanders, as admirable an establishment politician as you’ll find these days but essentially an old-school Liberal, have put him forth as a savior for the dispossessed. But JFK and Bernie, like Carter, weren’t heroic and American politics has drifted ever-rightward from the early-1960s to today. Organizers and activists need to be lifted up, not presidents based on the romantic notions of what they did or were going to do, or what they did after they left office.
And so, an accurate reckoning of Jimmy Carter’s legacy as president is imperative at this time, as hagiography begins to replace analysis in looking at his life.
At home, Carter embraced Neo-Liberalism, pro-business economic policies, deregulation, and, ultimately, austerity. While Governor of Georgia he was introduced to corporate leaders from Coca-Cola and other companies and then mentored by David Rockefeller, who brought him into the Trilateral Commission and took him on junkets to various countries where Carter received his education in global politics. Along the way, he began to take a role in national Democratic Party politics, and was a leader in the 1972 “Stop McGovern” campaign at the Democratic convention that failed but clearly showed the rightward direction in which the party was headed.
As president, Carter was not as friendly to organized labor as Democrats had historically been (in 1977, when the Youngstown mills shut down and a coalition of local activists led by Staughton Lynd and ecumenical leaders tried to find a way for the workers to gain a say in company decisions and keep the plants open, Carter offered no help). He also believed that the traditions of New Deal regulation had passed their date of effectiveness and believed that the market, not congressional law, should guide business behaviors. Thus as president Carter deregulated key industries like the airlines, natural gas, trucking, banking, and railways. He appointed Paul Volcker to head the Fed in 1979 and brought on the “Volcker Shocks,” which led to soaring inflation and then austerity budgets—and those were a big factor in Carter’s loss in 1980.
Carter’s domestic policy cabinet choices often came with the blessing of the corporate community, and Carter himself in his Memoirs admitted, “In many cases I feel more at home with the conservative Democratic and Republican members of Congress,” even though “the liberals vote with me much more often.” While liberals and the Left condemn Reagan for this profound shift—and there’s much to condemn about Reagan—the reality is that the evolution toward Neo-Liberalism and unregulated markets took off under Carter.
In foreign policy, the bigger focus of this essay, Carter’s record is equally problematic, and his policies upended Nixon-era détente, abandoned arms control progress, increased military spending, and led to an interventionist foreign policy with the U.S. funding armed, militant right-wing groups in Afghanistan, Central America, and Africa. Carter does deserve credit for brokering the Camp David accords, though their long-term benefit has been minimal, and for establishing the “One China” policy, which is currently being abandoned. But if one believes, as I do, that Noam Chomsky’s description of America’s postwar presidents as war criminals is accurate, then Carter is surely part of that rogue’s gallery as well.
Carter might be a secular saint to many in the 21st Century, but when it came to engaging with the world during his one-term presidency, he was a war criminal and set the stage for many of even worse foreign policy crimes of the Reagan era. In Africa, in Asia, in Latin America, Carter created violent programs, aided terrorists, and contributed to death and destruction at a high level. His stewardship of the crisis with Iran, one he contributed to with his support of the Shah, made the situation worse and more dangerous. In all, his stewardship over foreign policy the American empire also is instructive in the ways that Liberal militarism and imperialism work and are core principles in American politics.
>Budgets and Militarism. In the immediate post-Vietnam era U.S. military budgets naturally decreased, but in 1978 Carter put a halt to that and began giving the Pentagon more money, again providing a transition for the immense spending of the Reagan years. He also put the belligerent, Kissinger wannabee Zbigniew Brzezinski in charge of foreign policy and consistently made the Secretary of State, the more moderate Cyrus Vance, less important. As a 1979 Washington Post article explained, “Business is booming for most of the defense contractors of this country and will stay that way. This is the view from the executive suites of the aerospace industry as well as from the cubicles of the Commerce Department where analysts have been going over the sales figures on planes, ships, missiles, and tanks… ‘Business hasn’t been as good as this since the late 1950s and early 1960s’… said James W. Beggs, executive vice president of General Dynamics.”
>Indonesia/East Timor: Contrary to the widespread belief that the U.S. “looked away” as Indonesia slaughtered tens of thousands in East Timor, an ex-Portuguese colony it sought to annex, the Carter administration provided heavy support—military, financial, diplomatic—to Jakarta. Indonesian troops in East Timor “were armed roughly 90 per cent with our equipment,” the Department of State acknowledged. As they ran out of military materiel with their escalating operations, Carter authorized additional arms sales of $112 million for 1978, and Vice-President Walter Mondale visited Jakarta to announce new arms sales. Throughout, the Carter administration denied that the situation in East Timor was dangerous.
>Angola: A Marxist group, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) began a war of national liberation, which resulted in independence in 1975. South African refused to accept the MPLA victory so, supported by the U.S., intervened against the new government with army, naval, and air force units, with arms provided by Washington, D.C. and other western governments as well as mercenaries funded by the CIA. With Cuban aid, the MPLA eventually pushed South Africa out of Angola, but then South Africa funded a counterrevolutionary group, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA)—which had fought alongside the MPLA until 1975.
President Carter, cooperating with China, made a deal to provide UNITA—led by the notorious warlord Jonas Savimbi, a one-time member of the MPLA with Maoist roots—with 800 tons of weapons to fight against the new popular government in battles which included conventional warfare, air attacks, and raids on SWAPO refugee camps, as well as a massacre at Kassinga in 1978 where U.S.-backed forces killed 800 people. Though the UN called for an end to Pretoria’s intervention and Namibian statehood, Carter and the incoming Reagan administration continued to send weapons to South African and UNITA forces,
>Vietnam: Carter said that the U.S. had no obligation to help Vietnam after the war because “the destruction was mutual” in one of his first press conferences in 1977, and continued to assault the new socialist government in Hanoi, blocking its attempts to get promised reparations from the U.S. or aid from international agencies like the IMF or World Bank. After Vietnam intervened in Cambodia/Kampuchea to oust the murderous Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge government, Carter continued to recognize the bloody Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Kampuchea.
He then, as in Angola, began cooperating with China, again, to do something about it. In a January 29, 1979 conversation with Deng Xiaoping, Carter expressed his desire to punish Vietnam by encouraging other nations to reduce aid to Hanoi “as long at the Vietnamese are the invaders,” increasing military aid to Thailand, reaching out to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members to unite against Vietnam, now the SRV, while warning the Soviet Union that continued support of Vietnam would harm relations with America.
Deng expressed his concerns over Vietnam as well and told Carter that “some punishment over a short period of time will put a restraint on Vietnamese ambitions” and that “we need your moral support in the international field.” The American president understood clearly what China intended but cautioned that “invasion of Vietnam would be very serious destabilizing action.” Deng reassured him that “we have noted what you said to us, that you want us to be restrained. It is not that we did not consider this. . . .We intend a limited action. Our troops will quickly withdraw. We’ll deal with it like a border incident.”
Carter said no more, and so, on February 17, 1979 hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops struck along the Vietnamese border. The incursion did not last long, about a month, but it was costly to both countries as the Chinese had about 25,000 or more killed and over 40,000 wounded and the Vietnamese had about 10,000 killed. Financially, however, the toll on Vietnam was greater. The burden of fighting against China right after intervening in Kampuchea, and the immense occupation costs of keeping Phnom Penh under control, would plague the SRV economy for years, making reconstruction immensely difficult if not impossible.
>Nicaragua and the Contras: Though the Contra War and U.S. destruction in Nicaragua was mostly a Ronald Reagan product, Carter set the stage for later intervention in the summer of 1979, when the Sandinista Revolution made its final push to take over Managua and then deposed Somoza in July. Earlier, when the Sandinistas were in a larger popular front group, Carter insisted it take a more moderate position, which prompted the FSLN to leave the coalition. Then, in June, he directed Cyrus Vance, the Secretary of State, to urge Somoza to leave but be replaced by a broad-based government and an OAS peacekeeping force, conditions that would deny a Sandinista victory. Once the FSLN took over on July 19th and began receiving aid from other socialist states Carter authorized the CIA to support resistance forces in Nicaragua, the genesis of the Contras.
>Iraq: Though there has been no official documentary confirmation, various Middle Eastern politicians and diplomats have maintained that Carter had state department officials reach out to Saddam Hussein, who’d had long-standing grievances and skirmishes with the new Islamic Republic of Iran, to encourage him to ratchet up Iraqi pressure and aggression against Tehran. In the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis, the failure of an armed rescue mission by the U.S., and increasing hostility from the Khomeini government, the claim is plausible. While proof of the “greenlight” to Baghdad to start the Iraq-Iran War is still speculative, it’s clear that the Reagan program to support Baghdad against Khomeini did not emerge out of nowhere.
>Afghanistan and the Mujahadeen: In Carter’s most militarist, hawkish, and ultimately consequential, move, he intervened heavily in Afghanistan after Soviet intervention there at Christmas 1979. He took a hard line on Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, which removed the bloody Hafizullah Amin government in favor of the more reformist Babrak Karmal faction, in spite of the likes of George Kennan and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal urging caution, comparing Moscow’s relation with Kabul to the American role in Guatemala.
In short order he then decided to boycott the 1980 Olympics scheduled for Moscow and dramatically increased military spending for 1980-81, providing a prologue and rationale for Reagan’s even more-immense buildups. And, as Islamic fundamentalists from throughout the region poured into Pakistan to fight against the Soviet-backed government in Kabul, he began funding these mujahadeen groups and famously sent Brzezinski to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where he told the fighters there that “God is on your side” and that they would defeat the Karmal government. This of course led to the most stark example of “Blowback” in the era—the ultimate creation of al Queda and the Taliban.
So Carter has been unique since he left office in his dedication to peace and justice, especially in supporting Palestinian rights (see his book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid), helping broker a nuclear agreement with the North Koreans, and including the idea of human rights into foreign policy considerations in places like Argentina during the Dirty War.
Especially compared to many other recipients (Kissinger, Begin, Obama) his Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 was well-deserved. You won’t find two ex-presidents more unlike Carter and Donald Trump in terms of their personal ethics and morality. Yet, as caretakers of the American empire and the military-industrial complex, they acted more similarly than not.
So Jimmy Carter, with some differences, also operated within, maintained, and strengthened American hegemony and imperialism, and global instability, during his time in office. His presidency is a great study in the structural imperatives of the American government, and Liberalism, and how even people with a good heart are war criminals when conducting affairs of the state.