Jimmy Carter, US president from 1977 to 1981, keeps popping into mind lately. There are two immediate causes: first, the peoples’ protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, that have seemingly ushered in the possibility of something resembling democracy for those countries; and secondly, the flurry of tributes and remembrances of Ronald Reagan, the president who succeeded Carter, on the occasion of what would’ve been Reagan’s 100th birthday.
I voted for Carter in 1976. By the time of the 1980 election, when Carter was bidding for a second term, I was thoroughly disillusioned. I abandoned Carter and went with John Anderson, the rogue republican running as an independent. Both Anderson and Carter were trounced by Reagan, whose campaign had, among other things, promised a return of dignity to the office, and to an unflinching pride in America. Flag-waving is not an innovation that can be credited to Reagan, but I think it was him that elevated it to the point that no aspirant to the office can fail to proclaim ceaselessly that America is the Greatest Country on Earth – past, present or future, and stand a chance of winning an election.
One of the big problems with Carter was that rather than champion America’s greatness, he challenged Americans to a higher standard of goodness. He was critical of America’s dependence and our culture of entitlement. He challenged us to sacrifice, and to have higher expectations of ourselves, and – what stands out for me these decades later – he championed the possibility that America would pay more than lip service to the values of democracy and human rights around the world. He pushed to make a commitment to human rights a fundamental platform of US foreign policy, a factor in determining which regimes the US would support.
His efforts failed, however. He was considered weak and indecisive. And his approach to international relations appeared to be naive, soft and unworkable. Ironically, his undoing can be traced to one glaring instance in which he did not hold to his human rights agenda. Carter was unwilling to break with the Shah of Iran over that ruler’s oppressive rule. And when the Shah fell and US citizens were held hostage in the new Islamic republic – not to be released until the day Reagan was sworn into office – Carter’s ineffectual leadership was underscored.
A phrase that was widely circulated in those days was “America’s national interest”. Carter’s critics argued that the way a foreign regime treated its own people was of little importance, so long as it supported America’s anti-communist agenda, and upheld an international balance of power that kept the Eastern Block in check.
With the advent of Ronald Reagan – the Great Communicator – all of Carter’s moralizing went out the window. There was nothing wrong with America or with Americans. No, we didn’t need to discipline ourselves or contain our hunger for resources from the rest of the world. We didn’t need to examine our role in supporting repressive regimes that joined with us in our Cold War against the Soviets.
How unfortunate though, that we Americans have been content to have our “national interest” defined so narrowly. It seems to me that, particularly since the breakup of the Soviet bloc, there has been a huge opportunity for the US, as the sole world super-power – to begin to change the international playing field, to shift and broaden the definition of national interest, to recognize – in line with the principles and the realities of interdependence between nations and peoples – that we cannot ensure our own freedoms by supporting the oppression of others by “friendly” regimes.
Sadly though, there’s a persistence to the notion that suppressing anti-Americanism is a legitimate reason to maintain dictators. We’ve heard it throughout the last month – the worry that President Obama erred when he called for Mubarak to step down, because Islamic militants might succeed him, or because other dictators would lose their confidence in America’s backing. Of course it’s true that revolutionaries and democratic movements are likely to distrust a superpower that has for so long talked the talk of democracy and human rights, but has only walked the walk for the benefit of its own. And of course it’s far worse than that: in too many instances, like Egypt, like Iran, we’ve funded the very armies and the prisons and the secret police that are the instruments of oppression. We cannot escape the consequences of these truths. But better to acknowledge the realities, to make reparations where possible, to legitimately support self-determination, knowing that others may determine to oppose the very policies and priorities that we ourselves ought to have opposed. Better to mend our ways and to risk the consequences of democracy and freedom.
Because how can a people be free who depend for their freedom on the oppression of others. Isn’t that a fundamental lesson that runs all through the history of the United States?
And so, back to Jimmy Carter. A most imperfect president, indeed. But as the years pass, and other administrations take their turn on the world stage, my estimation of Jimmy Carter continues to rise. What I most admire about him is his attempt to lead morally, and with a sense of responsibility to a world community which the US is bound to serve, not be served by. I don’t think we Americans were quite ready for him.
I think...I hope...that Obama has the potential to be another such president. I believe he has demonstrated a similar willingness to be led by principle, to elevate the legitimate needs and interests of the world’s dispossessed, to transcend the fearful, zero-sum, self-absorbed fixation on the stability of America’s consumer economy. And if I’m right about Obama, then let me be wrong in my sinking despair that we Americans will once again prove ourselves not ready for the good man we entrusted with our highest office.