The Washington Post Gratuitously and Wrongly Trashes Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter working at his desk – Public Domain

“In 1978, a Washington Post editorial described what many of President Jimmy Carter’s critics felt was missing from Mr. Carter’s foreign policy: “the sense of design, of architecture of knowing what he was doing, that Henry Kissinger conveyed widely, even to detractors.”  (Washington Post editorial, December 1, 2023)

The mainstream media, including the Washington Post and the New York Times are gradually getting out of the editorial business.  Whereas there were several editorials each day in the Post and the Times, now there is typically only one.  Many readers, myself included, have stopped reading these editorials because they tend to be group-think exercises on weighty public issues that have no bite or original point of view.  There is a similar problem at the Central Intelligence Agency, where National Intelligence Estimates are group-think exercises that represent the entire intelligence community.  As a result, like editorials, intelligence estimates are lowest common denominator documents that eliminate sharp opinions and original ideas.  I should add that the late Henry A. Kissinger felt the same way about CIA estimates and, as a result, didn’t read them.

Last week, the Post published a bizarre and outrageous editorial on Kissinger’s legacy that weakly concluded that his legacy “was still up for debate.”  But planted in the middle of the mealy editorial was an unusual criticism of the foreign policy of President Carter, which was gratuitous and wrong-headed.

Carter’s accomplishments in foreign policy rivaled those of any of the post-World War II presidents.  He ignored advice from the Department of State not to engage in a Panama Canal treaty, which was a major political and policy achievement.  He outmaneuvered conservative opposition to his diplomacy and ignored public opinion polling that showed three-quarters of the American people were opposed to the treaty.

President Richard Nixon conducted the opening to China in 1972, and Carter finished the job with the exchange of diplomatic relations with China in 1979.  Once again, Carter had to deal with conservative opposition to severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan and revoking the Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan.  Carter’s treaty abrogation was challenged in the Federal district court, where he lost, but he ultimately won in the Appeals Court.  Carter also negotiated mutually beneficial trade agreements with China, which our most recent presidents have been unable to do.

Kissinger received plaudits from the Post for his shuttle diplomacy with Egypt and Syria, but Carter’s Camp David process brought Israelis and Egyptians together in a way that ensured there could not be another Arab-Israeli war.  Without Egypt in the Arab coalition against Israel, the Arab states could no longer gang up on Israel.  It was Carter who shepherded Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat through two weeks of very tough negotiations.  Carter should have won a Nobel Peace Prize because, not since President Theodore Roosevelt’s role in ending the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, had a U.S. president so effectively mediated a dispute between two nations.  The Post credits Kissinger with orchestrating the “deep entanglement of the United States in the Middle East,” but it’s becoming more apparent that the Middle East is the United States’ briar patch and we have no way of getting out.

Unlike Kissinger, who had no regard for democratic values in the making of national security policy, Carter’s “design” for foreign policy stressed the importance of the rule of law, universal human rights, self-determination, and the avoidance of military intervention.  Whereas  Kissinger orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile, Carter suspended military and economic aid to the authoritarian government of Augusto Pinochet.  Kissinger supported right-wing governments in Nicaragua and El Salvador that terrorized their own people; Carter suspended aid to these Central American governments.

The Post credits Kissinger with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, but more than a third of U.S. military fatalities in Vietnam occurred during the Nixon presidency. There were no combat deaths during the Carter presidency.   There was never a chance that a Carter administration would conduct the kind of secret bombing that Kissinger conducted in Cambodia that led to the emergence of the Khmer Rouge and the deaths of more than 150,000 civilians.

Not every Carter decision was a good one.  Like Kissinger, Carter negotiated a strategic arms agreement with the Soviet Union, SALT II, but the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 ensured that the Senate would never ratify the treaty.  Carter made a big mistake in naming Zbigniew Brzezinski as his national security advisor.  Kissinger and Brzezinski were academic rivals at Harvard University in the 1950s, and Brzezinski would never continue the kind of diplomacy that had Kissinger’s name all over it.  Carter also had difficulty negotiating between his right-of-center national security adviser, Brzezinski, and his left-of-center secretary of state, Cyrus Vance.

The most bizarre aspect of the Post editorial praising Kissinger’s legacy was crediting him with “setting the stage for some of the most momentous developments of the late 20th century,” such as the collapse of the Soviet Union.  You could make a far stronger argument that the weapons systems that were introduced during the Carter administration, which included the deployment of intermediate-range missiles and cruise missiles in Europe led to Moscow’s willingness to engage in serious disarmament talks with the United States and the beginning of Moscow’s geopolitical and economic decline.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for