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Morality, Reason, and Power, by Gaddis Smith; The Uncertain Crusade, by Joshua Muravchik

Words and Deeds

Morality, Reason, and Power: American Diplomacy in the Carter Years.
by Gaddis Smith.
Hill & Wang. 296 pp. $18.95.

The Uncertain Crusade: Jimmy Carter and the Dilemmas of Human Rights Policy.
by Joshua Muravchik.
Hamilton Press. 264 pp. $18.95.

These two books—which have in common only their price—are useful reminders of the Carter Presidency, and both help us, albeit in very different ways, to think anew about some of the basic problems facing any American government in its efforts to design and conduct foreign policy.

Gaddis Smith, a professor of American history at Yale, is full of sympathy for President Carter's announced goal of shifting the emphasis of American foreign policy from East-West issues to North-South issues, and for his attempt to make “moral” considerations paramount over geopolitical concerns. In Smith's universe, power—that is, American power—plays no role except as a slogan behind which American hardliners have rallied to attack the early, idealistic Carter. Smith especially admires Carter's Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, and especially dislikes his National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

To be sure, Smith grants that Carter was not up to the job, and that this could be seen precisely in his selection of the unlikely pair of Brzezinski and Vance “as his two principal advisers on foreign policy”:

He knew they represented different viewpoints but did not appreciate how deep the incompatibility lay. He thought he would pick ideas now from one, now from the other, taking the best of each. Only a President with deep experience in foreign affairs and a grasp of the issues equal or superior to that of such contending advisers could have prevented crippling contradictions. Carter lacked such experience and grasp.

Moreover, Gaddis continues, when it came time, as it inevitably did, to make a choice between the two men, Carter came down on the wrong side:

His philosophy of repentance and reform was appropriate as criticism of past error, but it provided little guidance in dealing with new problems. Furthermore, it led to arrogance. The self-righteous reformer is easy prey to the argument that an adversary, in this case the Soviet Union, is the sole cause of all that is wrong. Carter thus was a ready convert to the world according to Brzezinski.

In short, the problem with Carter was that he came to abandon his early vision of the world-according-to-Vance and to embrace the view of Brzezinski.

Smith thus takes his place alongside those, like Jesse Jackson and Anthony Lewis, who have condemned Carter's belated recognition of the gravity of the Soviet challenge and his equally belated conclusion that American military power might be of some value after all. Smith does concede that “the uncooperative behavior of the Soviet Union” had a certain responsibility for Carter's turnabout. Yet in keeping with the perspective of this book, he analyzes Soviet behavior not in terms of the real world situation but rather in terms of the effect it had upon policy-making in Washington. Thus, Soviet expansionism in Africa served Brzezinski's nefarious purposes; the relentless build-up of Soviet SS-20's aimed at Western Europe “provided an excuse for introducing new American nuclear weapons.” The closest Smith can bring himself to a harsh view of the Soviets is in the judgment that “Soviet leaders had it in their power to react to conciliatory as well as to hostile American gestures at a time when Carter's approach was still fluid. By failing to respond to conciliation, they drove conciliation from the field.”


From Gaddis Smith one turns in relief to Joshua Muravchik, who, although telling us more about Carter's human-rights policy than we might wish to know, has a much deeper appreciation of the real components of American foreign policy, and of the way the world works. In The Uncertain Crusade Muravchik chronicles in specific and accurate detail the process whereby Carter's originally broad-gauged approach to human rights, fashioned in part by Senator Henry Jackson, was captured by the radical left wing of the Democratic party and transformed into a weapon to bludgeon America's undemocratic allies.

Much of the enthusiasm that accompanied the first introduction of America's human-rights policy came, in fact, from representatives of the Left. The idea was to “punish” regimes that failed to meet the moral standards established by Carter's UN ambassador, Andrew Young, his human-rights administrator, Patricia Derian, and their subordinates. In passages that could be written today about efforts to bring down the governments of South Korea, Chile, and South Africa, Muravchik shows the scramble to challenge repressive right-wing allies of the United States while, with very rare exceptions, repressive regimes of the Left were exempted. Indeed, the latter became beneficiaries of yet another Carter “doctrine,” the one that held we had finally outgrown our visceral anti-Communism.

Yet this zealousness burned out rather quickly as the dictators under attack for the most part perversely refused to collapse in the face of harsh rhetoric from Washington. Then, too, some Congressmen in 1977 and 1978 were finding it difficult to understand why the administration was so enthusiastic about cutting off aid to Argentina but not, say, to Idi Amin's Uganda. Human rights turned out to be a two-edged sword, cutting as keenly against the sort of “progressive” regimes Carter's people favored as against those they disliked. The clincher came with the problem posed by the greatest systematic violator of human rights of them all, the Soviet Union, which eventually, in its December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, proved to be the instrument of Carter's own personal education in political reality.

All this is richly and elegantly analyzed by Muravchik before he turns to a discussion of what the proper role of human rights should be in American foreign policy. If we are to be true to our principles, he writes, we must understand that “The struggle for human rights, far from being, as Carter and his aides proclaimed, indifferent to political systems, is fundamentally a struggle about political systems.” This means that we have to be unequivocal in our denunciation of the grossest violators, who happen to be the Communists. It also means that we have an obligation systematically to advance the cause of human rights through our support of democratic countries and movements, especially in cases where they are threatened.

Muravchik thus applauds the establishment under Ronald Reagan of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), because this provides us with a way, untainted by association with the CIA, of sending financial support to fledgling democratic groups and movements overseas. But aside from the kind of support that the NED might offer, “The principal medium of human-rights policy,” Muravchik writes, “must be words.”

Here one may be permitted a disagreement. It is quite true that words—by which Muravchik means what others have called an “ideological offensive”—can sometimes have great effect. But in the world arena, where most leaders care less about what is said than about what is done, words are not good enough. As it happens, the nation that reacted most violently to Carter's original proclamation of a human-rights policy was the Soviet Union, not because it feared the words themselves but rather because it feared that the words were forerunners of an active policy to support insurrections within the Soviet empire. If the Kremlin had known from the start that the United States was simply going to give lectures, it would not have gotten so excited.

Muravchik notes, correctly, that the Shah of Iran was greatly affected by American strictures on human rights, but that was because his own regime had been installed by American power, and the Shah believed that, in the end, the Americans would keep him there. Had he realized the United States would do nothing at all, he might well have acted more forcefully to preserve his rule. Similarly, we have seen in recent months two would-be dictators depart Haiti and the Philippines, each believing (mistakenly or not) that the United States had the power to make him or break him and each preferring exile to the kind of punishment he feared we might deliver upon him if he attempted to stay.

To put it simply, principles need the backing of power. Moreover, every coherent and successful use of power magnifies its potential in other circumstances. The invasion of Grenada briefly gave our words far greater authority in Central America; the bombing of Libya seems to have instilled in the state sponsors of international terrorism at least a brief moment of reflection.

When it comes to financial support for democratic movements, it is well and good to give such support openly through the National Endowment for Democracy. But there are also many times and places where the choice is between secret support and no support at all, and where covert struggles against dictators are also necessary.

There are times when words suffice, but there are other times when action is clearly better than words, however fine they may be. Indeed, without sufficient power and the will to use it, fine words, à la Jimmy Carter, eloquently expose our impotence and invite aggression, and thus become worse than silence.

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