Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 3, 2007

Jimmy Carter’s Brilliant Diplomacy

In retrospect, the collapse of the shah of Iran in 1979 and the rise of a radical Islamic regime in his place have to be classed among the great strategic disasters of American foreign policy in the latter half of the 20th century.

Was this debacle inevitable, or could the U.S., under President Jimmy Carter, have taken effective action to prop up our ally?

Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to Carter at the time and about all this he wrote something quite wise in his memoirs:

I felt strongly that successful revolutions were historical rarities, that they were inevitable only after they happened, and that an established leadership, by demonstrating both will and reason, could disarm the opposition through a timely combination of repression and concession.

But, of course, despite the efforts of Brzezinski and others serving Carter, the shah did not succeed in disarming the opposition, either via repression or concession. In the end, the Persian king of kings was toppled by an Islamic revolution, and after this happened, it too became “inevitable” when we look back at it.

Could the U.S. have kept our ally in power by some means? History cannot be rewound to answer that question (except perhaps via Hillary Clinton’s favorite television show, The Time Tunnel). But what can be demonstrated to an absolute certainty is that decision-making in the U.S. government in that period was catastrophically disordered. Read More

In retrospect, the collapse of the shah of Iran in 1979 and the rise of a radical Islamic regime in his place have to be classed among the great strategic disasters of American foreign policy in the latter half of the 20th century.

Was this debacle inevitable, or could the U.S., under President Jimmy Carter, have taken effective action to prop up our ally?

Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to Carter at the time and about all this he wrote something quite wise in his memoirs:

I felt strongly that successful revolutions were historical rarities, that they were inevitable only after they happened, and that an established leadership, by demonstrating both will and reason, could disarm the opposition through a timely combination of repression and concession.

But, of course, despite the efforts of Brzezinski and others serving Carter, the shah did not succeed in disarming the opposition, either via repression or concession. In the end, the Persian king of kings was toppled by an Islamic revolution, and after this happened, it too became “inevitable” when we look back at it.

Could the U.S. have kept our ally in power by some means? History cannot be rewound to answer that question (except perhaps via Hillary Clinton’s favorite television show, The Time Tunnel). But what can be demonstrated to an absolute certainty is that decision-making in the U.S. government in that period was catastrophically disordered.

To see such a demonstration one need go no further than an essay by Gregory Treverton in a fascinating new book, Dealing With Dictators: Dilemmas of U.S. Diplomacy and Intelligence Analysis, 1945-1990, which paints a devastating portrait of Carter’s handling of the Iran crisis in the last months and days of the shah’s reign.

Thanks in no small measure to his own cutbacks in the realm of human intelligence, Carter and his subordinates were driving blind in the dark. But even with their partial grasp of what was transpiring, they were wholly unprepared to act in a coherent way. Carter himself was caught between the imperatives of his much vaunted human-rights policy and his recognition of Iran’s vital strategic position. Evidently unable to reconcile the two in his mind, he zigzagged.

Thus, at a state dinner in Tehran in 1977, Carter toasted the shah for his “wisdom,” “judgment,” “sensitivity,” and “insight.” The Iranian leader, said the U.S. President, was “an island of stability” in the Middle East.

Two years later, when the going got rough, and the shah’s survival hung in the balance in the face of massive demonstrations and strikes, Carter was asked whether the shah could survive. His response was a case study in vacillation, timorousness, irresolution, and indecision:

I don’t know. I hope so. This is something that is in the hands of the people of Iran . . . . We personally prefer that the shah maintain a major role in government, but that is a decision for the Iranian people to make.

These words, writes Treverton, were taken by Iranians both inside the government and in the opposition “as an indication that the United States intended to dump the shah.” Try as Carter might to have his subordinates correct this impression, a “stream of clarifications and restatements issued over the following days in Washington could not change that reading.”

Carter’s words plunged the shah himself into a “deep depression.” Six weeks later he was gone. We are still dealing with his successors. The stakes in Iran were enormous back then. With nuclear weapons now entering the equation, they are even higher today.

To read about the destructive effects of a nuclear weapon, click here.

To read about how Jimmy Carter bungled the Iranian hostage crisis, click here.

To learn more about what I think about Jimmy Carter, and what he thinks about me, click here.

To read about why Jimmy Carter is our worst ex-president, click here.

To learn about peanut farming in the United States, click here.

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Livni’s Half-Measure

For Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, it was a moment of truth: would she call for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation following the devastating Winograd report on the 2006 war in Lebanon? If he refused, would she herself resign?

From the public’s point of view, her duty seemed clear. Even before the report’s release, Olmert’s approval ratings had hit rock bottom. And the report more than confirmed the conventional wisdom: his government had launched a war without having any idea how to fight it or how to end it.

The public expected Livni to start the political process that would bring down the government. Instead, she chose a half-measure: calling on Olmert to resign while staying in his government in order to help him implement the report’s recommendations. Though polls today indicate that the Israeli public is split down the middle on whether she should have resigned, her fence-straddling position is ultimately untenable. If Olmert should resign, as Livni’s statement suggests, how can he be fit to implement the changes outlined in the report?

Read More

For Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, it was a moment of truth: would she call for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation following the devastating Winograd report on the 2006 war in Lebanon? If he refused, would she herself resign?

From the public’s point of view, her duty seemed clear. Even before the report’s release, Olmert’s approval ratings had hit rock bottom. And the report more than confirmed the conventional wisdom: his government had launched a war without having any idea how to fight it or how to end it.

The public expected Livni to start the political process that would bring down the government. Instead, she chose a half-measure: calling on Olmert to resign while staying in his government in order to help him implement the report’s recommendations. Though polls today indicate that the Israeli public is split down the middle on whether she should have resigned, her fence-straddling position is ultimately untenable. If Olmert should resign, as Livni’s statement suggests, how can he be fit to implement the changes outlined in the report?

Livni herself comes out relatively clean in the report: she was one of two ministers who voted against escalating the conflict and who pressed for taking advantage of early international support. There was nothing in the report, aside from collective responsibility, suggesting that she should resign. But her actions speak far more loudly than her words, and have undermined her reputation for being a notch above the political fray—even though she is arguably behaving much better than her Kadima colleagues, who are completely backing Olmert. Doing the right thing halfway is better than nothing, even though her straddling will prove, I think, to have been a big political mistake.

In Livni’s defense, the choice to resign would not have been an easy one to make. Her goal, after all, is to lead Kadima into the next elections—and all of the party’s other ministers are backing Olmert. But if this concern animated her decision, it was extremely shortsighted. Olmert and Livni herself, to the extent she is standing by his side, are bringing the entire Kadima party down with them. By leading a rebellion against Olmert, Livni just might have saved Kadima—and possibly her own political career.

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The Dangers of Patience

On Tuesday, referring to North Korea’s failure to live up to its pledge to shut down and seal the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon by April 14, Condoleezza Rice remarked that “we don’t have endless patience.” North Korea made its promise to shut down the reactor in February at six-party disarmament talks as a part of a two-step plan to dismantle its nuclear-weapons program. The talks were sponsored by Kim Jong Il’s only ally, China, which pressured the United States to accept the deal.

Secretary Rice was repeating comments made last Friday by President Bush, who declared that “Our patience is not unlimited” as he stood next to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Camp David. (To their credit, Abe and his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, have been pushing the United States to adopt a stiffer policy toward Kim Jong Il.)

These latest statements add to the collection of similar warnings that Kim has collected over the past two weeks. “Our patience is not infinite,” Reuters reported a senior U.S. official as saying on April 14. On that day the State Department’s Christopher Hill, the chief American negotiator at the talks, said, “We are not indifferent to missing a deadline.”

Maybe the Bush administration is not indifferent, but it has been very tolerant. The same unidentified American official said that Washington was willing to give Pyongyang “a few more days.” In fact, the U.S. has given the North Koreans a few more weeks.

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On Tuesday, referring to North Korea’s failure to live up to its pledge to shut down and seal the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon by April 14, Condoleezza Rice remarked that “we don’t have endless patience.” North Korea made its promise to shut down the reactor in February at six-party disarmament talks as a part of a two-step plan to dismantle its nuclear-weapons program. The talks were sponsored by Kim Jong Il’s only ally, China, which pressured the United States to accept the deal.

Secretary Rice was repeating comments made last Friday by President Bush, who declared that “Our patience is not unlimited” as he stood next to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Camp David. (To their credit, Abe and his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, have been pushing the United States to adopt a stiffer policy toward Kim Jong Il.)

These latest statements add to the collection of similar warnings that Kim has collected over the past two weeks. “Our patience is not infinite,” Reuters reported a senior U.S. official as saying on April 14. On that day the State Department’s Christopher Hill, the chief American negotiator at the talks, said, “We are not indifferent to missing a deadline.”

Maybe the Bush administration is not indifferent, but it has been very tolerant. The same unidentified American official said that Washington was willing to give Pyongyang “a few more days.” In fact, the U.S. has given the North Koreans a few more weeks.

What’s next? Well, American policymakers will undoubtedly confront Kim Jong Il with . . . more patience. For his part, Kim seems to have a more robust strategy for dealing with us. Last week, for the first time in fifteen years, he showed off missile systems in a military parade. There were three new systems, but what caught analysts’ attention was a new intermediate-range ballistic missile with a maximum range of 4,000 kilometers. It can reach the American territory of Guam. Kim’s Taepodong-2 missile—though not yet deployed—will be able to reach America’s West Coast with a nuclear payload.

So perhaps it would be a good time to start paying attention to Pyongyang’s leader. As Kim Myong Chol, often described as North Korea’s “unofficial spokesman,” wrote at the beginning of this year, “Kim is now one click away from torching the skyscrapers of New York.” This is an exaggeration: at this particular moment, the worst the North Korean leader could do is to incinerate Anchorage or Honolulu. But if North Korea’s arms development continues at this pace, in five to seven years, Kim’s technicians will be able to miniaturize nuclear weapons, mate them to missiles, and deploy them in a launch vehicle that can reach any point in North America.

Perhaps we should move the White House to Bermuda.

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