The Legacy of the Jimmy Carter Administration

The Legacy of the Jimmy Carter Administration

Neil Hall/Reuters

More on:

United States

Presidential History

from Lessons From History

Panelists discuss the policies and priorities of the Jimmy Carter administration and the lessons to be learned for U.S. foreign policy today.

The Lessons From History series uses historical analysis as a critical tool for understanding modern foreign policy challenges by hearing from practitioners who played an important role in a consequential historical event or from experts and historians. This series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.

SORKIN: Ready? All right. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Lessons From History Meeting Series. Today’s is “The Legacy of the Carter Administration” with Ann Compton, Stuart Eizenstat, and Robert Strong. The Lessons from History Series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.

I am Amy Davidson Sorkin. And I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.

So we can get right at it without long introductions. I’ll just refer you to the speakers’ biographies, which you should have, and just say that we’re so lucky to have this particular mix of people. We are—I think of it as a witness, a participant, and a political scientist to tell us what it—what it all means.

Again, the title of the panel specifies the Carter administration. I think a lot of us have gotten comfortable, and maybe too comfortable, thinking of Carter as a failed president who had a wildly successful post-presidency. And there’s something slightly condescending about it sometimes, that he’s really good at fighting the Guinea worm and at not getting rich but didn’t understand power when he had it. And I’d like to sort of challenge that a little. Not to underplay the greatness of the post-presidency, but just for this meeting to stipulate it, and look back at the presidency itself, at the administration.

To begin with, was it a failure? (Laughter.) And, Stu, why don’t I start with you?

EIZENSTAT: It was not a failure. It was widely thought to be because the accomplishments—which I’ll very briefly mention—were obscured by real problems—inflation, Iran, inexperience by the president and his Georgia Mafia, and inter-party warfare with the liberal wing of the party. But the accomplishments and lasting accomplishments are really quite amazing. He is, in my opinion, and I think I make the case for it in the book, the most accomplished one-term president in American history. Almost seventy percent of all of our legislation was passed. The energy security we enjoy today is largely based on the foundation of our three energy bills. He was the greatest environmental president since Theodore Roosevelt doubled the size of the National Park system.

All the ethics legislation, which is more important than ever in ethically challenged Washington, was passed by Carter. We broke the back of inflation. It was at the same time our Achilles’ heel, but by appointing Paul Volcker know that he was going to apply the stiffest monetary medicine. Carter took it and never complained about it. He was a great consumer champion. He totally deregulated all of our transportation system, including airlines. He made—democratized air travel. Created the modern vice presidency. And since we’re in New York City, saved this city from utter bankruptcy. Peter Solomon, who is here, is one of the people who helped accomplish that.

In foreign affairs, the greatest single act of personal diplomacy in presidential history of the entire country was at Camp David in the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, which has lasted to this day. He normalized relations with China. He brought human rights into foreign policy and applied it both to the military dictators in Latin America, catalyzing the democratic movements that started afterward. The Panama Canal Treaty was added to that as signaling a new era in U.S.-Latin relations. He took a very strong stand, not only on human rights with respect to military dictators in Latin America, but in what I call the soft underbelly of the Soviet Union: championed Soviet—(inaudible)—the democratic movement there; and then took a very, very tough stand, hard power, with respect to the Soviet Union after Afghanistan, the invasion in Christmas of ’79, but even before that. All the major weapons systems that Ronald Reagan deployed, and for which he deserves credit, started with us. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces in Europe, the cruise missile, the stealth bomber, the MX missile, all of those were started by Carter and then even his conservative critics say that he took very tough stands against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

So all of these are major, major accomplishments. Again, there were failures. We lost the election. We lost it badly and ushered in the whole Reagan era. Iran, which we’ll talk about in more detail, was clearly a failure. Not entirely, by any means, his fault. But these have overshadowed, again, these really lasting and major accomplishments which, in addition, we made the modern vice presidency, as it is today, a real partner, with Mondale. So these are lasting, positive things which have been overshadowed.

SORKIN: Bob, talk about that idea of overshadowing. From a political scientist, historians perspective, the judgement of failure and how it applies to Carter.

STRONG: We measure presidential legacies in a variety of ways. Clearly, in a democracy, elections count. I haven’t read today’s paper. I assume we’re still a democracy. (Laughter.) And in Carter’s case, it’s a mixed record. He wins a brilliant victory in 1976. Largely unknown on the national scene. A one-term governor of Georgia. Beats a wide field of distinguished opponents in the primary season and gets to the White House. He, of course, is not reelected in 1980. But there’s another way we measure presidents. And that is, to look at their policy monuments. What was the major legislation they passed? What were the things they did on the international scene? And how have they held up over time?

If you—if there was a market in presidential reputation, and you bought Harry Truman in 1953, you would have done very, very well. You could afford to live in this neighborhood. (Laughter.) You would have succeeded with that investment. What Mr. Eizenstat does in his book is review those policy monuments, and not only were how those decisions made, what happened during the Carter presidency, but he also tracks them. How have they held up over time? And I think Carter’s list of accomplishments is a distinguished one.

SORKIN: So it’s still—is this a good moment to buy on the Carter—

STRONG: His ranking is in the middle of the pack at the moment, but in terms of the forty-five presidents he’s twenty-five-twenty-six in the expert rankings and roughly the same place in terms of public opinion, in the middle of the pack, for modern presidents. I think—yes. I would give you advice. I would buy Carter, if I was in the market.

SORKIN: Ann, you know, there are moments when this idea of the—you don’t always know what the failure or the success is in the moment. But there are some moments that maybe put the scaffolding in place. You spent so much time, I want—if you could bring us back to New Year’s Eve 1977, when you and the Carters were in the shah’s palace, for what I picture as a glittering party. And maybe talk about that night and what it put in motion.

COMPTON: You know, there are kind of visual moments that we all hang onto. And of course, Iran, such a big part of Jimmy Carter’s legacy. And as a young reporter, I tease my kids I was eleven at the time I was covering his administration. And we were—if you can imagine it, the president of the United States decided he wanted to spend New Year’s Eve in Niavaran Palace with the shah and the shahbanu. In fact, when he gave a dinner toast that night, on New Year’s Eve in this fabulous palace, Jimmy Carter said: I asked my wife, quote, “With whom would you like to spend New Year’s Eve?” And she said, above all others I think, with the shah and Empress Farah. So we arranged the trip accordingly, and we came here to be with you. That was his dinner toast. (Laugher.)

And the shah and the shahbanu had just been in Washington and gave him a beautiful picture book, which he sat and read with Amy on his lap back at home. But why we remember that speech is here he was, in—and here we reporters were—in New Year’s Eve, in a place of such importance to the United States. And the president declared that Iran, because of the great leadership of the shah, he said, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. Well, yeah, maybe. But it was also literally just months before the shah took off for the Caspian Sea. He was very sick. There were—there were protests at night. There was clearly foment. When we slept in our hotel, we were just there one night, SAVAK security agents asleep on the couches in the lobby keeping an eye on us.

And when the president talked about what a stability—what island of stability, what did he know? Did he really think that? Did he say it because he wanted the shah to be in as strong a position as possible? And it’s at that moment that his focus on Tehran and Iran being so important to be an island of stability—at midnight, after the big royal dinner, I happened to be the pool reporter when we went upstairs to this gorgeous ballroom, and huge doors opened, and there’s President Carter and Mrs. Carter, the shah and the Empress Farah, and King Hussein of Jordan had come in. And they toasted each other. And I called out to the president. I said: Mr. President, we’ve just heard you’re going to Egypt to see President Sadat. He said, what?

Well, the doors closed. I went back downstairs. A few minutes later, the president’s Secret Service agent, Dick Keiser, comes down, finds me down with the rest of the press. He says: The president wants to see you. Come back. They open the doors again. Yes, he said, Cy Vance just told me, I’m going to see President Sadat in Aswan in two days’ time. And there—on the fourth of January, there we were, in this desert tarmac, safe place to keep him, far away from any kind of threatening crowds. There, the intersection of Iran was, which turned out to be one of the president’s greatest crosses to—well, I guess I shouldn’t say that—one of his greatest trials, and his meeting with Sadat as he tried to move forward, what was, you know, regarded as his greatest triumph.

SORKIN: I love that story, just because, again, it gets at some of the illusions that maybe all presidents have about what they can do, and also some of the possibilities. You know, one of the things that marked Carter’s foreign policy is that he did take these big risks sometimes. Just following up on the Sadat, talk about Camp David and the risks he took there. What was at stake, what he achieved.

STRONG: Well, we’ve just had a major anniversary of the Camp David negotiations. There’s another one coming, because Carter does this twice. He does the negotiation of a framework at Camp David. But six months later, he has to do shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East to finalize the treaty. That was almost as hard as the Camp David negotiations.

Camp David is a very unusual event. The experts in the Carter administration all advised the president not to do it. Normally when presidents meet with a head of state to finalize a treaty, the treaty is 90 percent, 95 percent complete when they get together. And there’s a little bit of work for them to do, and a lot of ceremony. That was not Camp David. The agreement had not been reached.

SORKIN: Thirteen days.

STRONG: Thirteen days. And a very uncertain outcome. And a high cost if it fails. It sets back a Middle East peace process that the president had high hopes for. It would have been a domestic political problem had it failed. There was, again, little prospect of it succeeding. But Carter does make it work. This is also one of those cases where a criticism of Carter—pays too much attention to detail, doesn’t see the big picture—is I think misguided. The fact that he paid attention to detail made him the ideal negotiator at Camp David and contributed significantly to its success.

SORKIN: If you could pick up on—

EIZENSTAT: Yeah. So let me set the stage. Carter believed in comprehensive solutions. He tries to reconvene a conference in Geneva that Kissinger had attempted and failed at in ’73, to get all the Middle East countries together and have a comprehensive peace based on a Brookings model. And it fails for a variety of reasons, which I discuss in one of the four chapters on the Middle East in the book. And so Sadat decides that if he ends up with all the other Arab countries in Geneva, he’ll never get the Sinai back. That’s what he really wants. He wants to get the Sinai back. And so he makes this historic trip to Jerusalem and declares no more wars. Months then followed in which the Israelis and the Egyptians try to negotiate what no more wars means. And they fail.

Carter then goes for the long ball and takes a great risk of inviting them—as Bob said, against the advice of all of us—to Camp David. He—over thirteen agonizing days and nights—drafts twenty-two separate peace agreements. He has to negotiate separately with Menachem Begin, the Prime Minister of Israel, and President Sadat because they were like two scorpions in the bottle. We tried to get them together the first one of those thirteen days. It was a disaster. And then he applies two personal touches, knowing and pouring over intelligence records to prepare. He takes them first to the Gettysburg battlefield, to underscore that five wars between them were enough. Sadat is a general. He had studied at the war college. He knows the Gettysburg battle. He starts expounding on Pickett’s last charge and all the mistakes the Confederates made. And Begin, who is anything but a military man but was a Lincoln scholar, immediately on the battlefield gives the Gettysburg Address from start to finish without a note.

At the end, the thirteenth day, we were close but not there. Begin says—I’m not bluffing, Mr. President. I cannot and will not compromise anymore. I’ve got an El Al plane at Andrew’s Air Force Base. Get me a White House car to take me out. He joked that it was a glorified concentration camp. He said: I’m not taking any more compromises. Carter, realizing that after thirteen days and nights if this fails it would totally undercut Sadat’s historic move, could lead to his assassination—which did occur later—that it would inflame the radicals in the region and engulf his own presidency, takes another personal touch based on his understanding of their character. So he knew that Begin had a great love for his eight grandchildren. He has a photo that was taken when they first came at Camp David of three of them. He gets the names of each of the grandchildren of Begin, personally autographs it with “best wishes for peace,” walks it over to the cabin of Begin, hands it to him and sees Begin goes through each of their names, reads them aloud, his lips quiver, his eyes tear, he puts his bags down. He said, Mr. President, I’ll make one last try. The rest is history. That’s lasted for forty years.

COMPTON: And that night, it was a dark and stormy night at Camp David, and I was the reporter standing at the helipad with those mists swirling up. And a limo pulls up and President Carter, and Menachem Begin, and Anwar Sadat get out, and they all get into a helicopter to fly down through the mist to the—talk about drama. That’s exactly—high stakes, no promise going into it that that’s how it would come out.

EIZENSTAT: And adding to the drama, it was the point that Bob made, everybody thinks Camp David was the end of it. It was not. It was a non-legally binding framework that had to be converted into a treaty. It was supposed to be done in three months. Six months passed. No treaty. Carter then takes a trip to the Middle East, which everyone said: Don’t do it. It’s going to be a failure. He spends three or four days in shuttle diplomacy between Cairo and Jerusalem, and he can’t make it work. He meets separately with Weizmann (sp) and Diane (sp). It doesn’t work. He literally is packing his bags, he’s in the presidential suite at the King David Hotel. He and Rosen (sp) are ready. Air space has been cleared. Air Force One is ready to go. Most of the staff is already gone. Begin calls up and says: I’d like to see you one last time. Carter thinks it’s just to tell him goodbye and hope I don’t see you again. (Laughter.)

In fact, he gets to the lobby of the King David, Carter calls us down and says: Rosen (sp) and I are just getting dressed. Try to entertain the Prime Minister until we’re ready. So Begin says to us: You know, boys, this is a very historic hotel, the King David. Yes, sir, we know. But not for the reasons you think. He said, when I was head of the Irgun, the underground, I blew this hotel up with the British in it. (Laughter.) Don’t worry, I’m not going to do it now with the president in it. (Laughter.)

SORKIN: Not now. (Laughs.)

EIZENSTAT: He goes up to the suite, they reach an agreement, they come down. The elevator breaks. They have to be pulled out butt-first. The treaty is reached. And it’s for forty years never once been violated.

SORKIN: I want to pick up on something that you said, about the deployment of American history when he was talking to them. How about for him? It’s often said that his sense of the American civil rights movement informed his thinking about Israel, about the Middle East. Talk about that a little.

EIZENSTAT: OK. So here’s a Southern president, grows up in a gnat-infested hamlet, highly segregated in Plains, Georgia. Two-thirds of the county is black. His playmates are all black, but not his classmates. His mother, Ms. Lillian, tends to black and white patients as a registered nurse. And he grows up with a sense that something is wrong here.

When he comes back from the Navy to Plains, over the objection of Rosalynn, his first elected position is to Sumter County Board of Education. And he says to me in one of the interviews I went to all the black schools in the so-called “separate, but equal” era. And what did I find, he says to me, I found that the black students had no way of getting to school, the school buses went past them, they had to walk. They had no books. And teenagers were sitting on seats for five and six-year-olds. This was really burnished into him.

And so he became, as president, a great civil rights president. He appoints more women and more minorities to federal judgeships and to senior positions than all thirty-eight presidents put together before him. Ruth Bader Ginsburg says—you may have seen the documentary—but she says in the book I would never be on the Supreme Court had Carter not opened judgeships to women. He supports affirmative action in universities, minority set-asides, things that really eroded his Southern base, but he believed very strongly.

And the flipside of that, his foreign policy. That’s where human rights came from. To him, that was the foreign policy side of civil rights at home. And his identification with the Palestinians, which ended up undercutting his support in the Jewish community, came because—and I’m quoting him now exactly; this is not my statement, it’s his—he says to me when I asked why did you have such a strong affinity for the Palestinians—and Begin at Camp David agreed to full autonomy—he said it’s for the following reason. I see the Palestinians as the blacks of the Middle East. The Israeli defense force treats them worse—this was his words, not mine—treats them worse than the white policemen treated the blacks when I was growing up. So he sees the Palestinian issue very much in civil rights-human rights terms.

STRONG: Race is the most important issue of his childhood, the most important issue of his early political career. He grows up in a family in which his father is a strict adherent of segregation, not just the laws, but all the social practices, and his mother is a rebel. Rosalynn Carter says Ms. Lillian was the only person she ever met who ever said anything nice about Abraham Lincoln. (Laughter.) She permitted blacks to enter the front of their house and sat with them in the parlor, not entering by the back and sitting with them in the kitchen. Now, as an agreement with her husband, she only did that when he was away. But nevertheless, Carter grows up in a family in which race was the real conflict.

SORKIN: So it’s interesting because it’s almost as though you’re saying that the idea of human rights in foreign policy, which is part of Carter’s legacy, is itself a legacy of the American civil rights movement in some historical pattern, way.

STRONG: It is for him.

SORKIN: For him.

STRONG: I think he saw that connection. And he was amazed at what happened in Georgia in a relatively short period of time with relatively little violence because people like Martin Luther King, Jr. talked and said this isn’t right, this has to change. And it did. He found that to be a dramatic development in his political life.

EIZENSTAT: Well, what made him a realistic candidate for the Democratic nomination was the following. He comes back from the Navy, he takes over the peanut business of his dying father. He’s told that there will be a boycott of his business unless he joins the White Citizens Council. He refuses. OK? And then he decides, at his inauguration as governor, to say the time for discrimination is over. That lands him on the front cover of Time magazine for the new South and it gave him credibility to run as president, not just as a segregationist Southerner. He knocks off Wallace in North Carolina and Florida. And he becomes the new South, the embodiment of a less racially discriminatory new South.

SORKIN: Which is also, I suppose, part of the legacy where there’s so much to talk about. I want to get to maybe one of the less—the less-fun moments, the so-called—the notorious or notoriously misunderstood, you know, depending on your perspective, malaise speech. This was delivered on July 15, 1979.

But, Ann, I believe that you and your colleagues had originally been told that the speech was going to be given on July 5th. Can you give us the context of the mysterious delay?

COMPTON: Just imagine if a president is going to give this huge, important speech at a time when you can’t get gas for your car, you have to wait forty-five minutes or an hour in line to get gas for your car. There’s this whole feeling that the country is upset and angry and worried. And Jimmy Carter’s hiding out at Camp David and it’s the 4th of July and on the 4th of July he said, no, no, I’m not going to give the speech. And Jody Powell says, how am I going to announce that? And he stays there another ten days. And he comes and he addresses the American people in what I remember as a very kind of a painful speech where he says—he says we have a crisis of confidence. He talks about the need for America to sacrifice. It’s set against a time when Americans were feeling so worried about it. And today, Jimmy Carter will tell you the conditions are now even worse. He said this is much worse than when I gave the speech.

So, Stu, what was it? What happened?

EIZENSTAT: OK, so here’s what happens. Carter’s polls are dropping. He comes back from the Tokyo G-7 summit, and he was going to stop in Hawaii, where he and Rosalynn had a recollection from the Navy, to get some R&R. I sent him a memo saying there are gas lines. If you’re shown on Waikiki Beach swimming, it’s disaster. He comes back grudgingly and angry. He cancels the energy speech I had spent three months—and Rick Hertzberg, who is here, helped draft—and he says I’m not giving it, people have turned me off on energy, I’m going to go to Camp David, I’m going to get the best and the brightest to come and try to right me and straighten out my presidency.

SORKIN: And did it work? Did the speech—

EIZENSTAT: And then we have an argument that was classic. Mondale, who’s an understated Norwegian, is across the same table at which Camp David, the accords are reached. We’ve got Pat Caddell, who’s a twenty-nine-year-old wunderkind pollster, and Ham Jordan and Carter and so forth. And we have this violent—and I use the term advisedly—debate in which Caddell says the problem with the president’s polls is that there is a malaise in the country, there’s a narcissistic society, we only care about ourselves. And Mondale and I say this is craziness, I mean, the reason our polls are down is double-digit inflation, double-digit unemployment, and gas lines. Carter buys Caddell’s notion, we end up merging this crisis of confidence speech—never used the term—with the energy speech. Rick drafts it. It turns out to be wildly successful, contrary to my thought and Carter’s. It touches a nerve of people. And the White House mailroom lady, who had been there since FDR’s days, said I’ve never seen such an outpouring of letters in my life.

What then happens? Amateur hour. He decides to show he’s now in control. He decides to ask for the resignation of all of his Cabinet.

COMPTON: Every one of them.

EIZENSTAT: Every one of them. He only wants to fire Blumenthal at Treasury and Califano at HEW. And it looked like the whole government had fallen. And that stepped on all of the momentum that we had. And that same mailroom lady said so poignantly, after he fired the Cabinet, all the letters stopped.

SORKIN: So interesting. So that gets at the inexperience point that you mentioned earlier.

EIZENSTAT: Yes. But here we are two-and-a-half years into the administration, the inexperience level should have fallen off. And I think that the problem was there needed to be a really senior Washington type in the White House. All we needed is one or two who would have said, look, if you want to talk about crisis of confidence, OK, but don’t use “malaise,” which we never did, but Pat Caddell briefed on. And certainly, if you want to fire a couple of Cabinet officers, fire them, but don’t ask for the resignation—

SORKIN: Ask everybody to resign.

EIZENSTAT: —of the entire Cabinet.

SORKIN: And right, you know, soon—a few months—just a couple of months after this speech, we get to another (I ?).

EIZENSTAT: Yeah, let me mention one other thing, which is so dramatic. Mondale, his partner, his real partner, is so turned off by this, he learned about the Cabinet firings—this was the guy who’s supposed to be in on every decision—when he’s campaigning for the SALT II nuclear arms treaty in Tennessee, reads it on the wire, comes back, says to me, Stu, I’ve got to see you. We had a unique relationship. And we have lunch at a Chinese restaurant across from the National Cathedral, which was empty for lunch, and if you ate there you would know why. (Laughter.) And he says to me I’m out of here, I cannot tolerate it, I’m resigning. I said you can’t resign, there’s no precedent for a vice president resigning. I cannot stand it. His fallback was I won’t be on the ticket. In the end, he decides to do so, but it just shows how angry he was at having the rug pulled out and how much he buried the headlines of this wonderful speech that Rick drafted, over the Cabinet firing.

SORKIN: And it shows how you can’t sort of choose the moments that define your legacy always. You might try with a speech.

But I want to move on quickly before we go to questions to the big—the big—one of the big failures: Iran. Well, I’m sure we’ll get into this more, but, you know, the shah, just a couple of months after the speech, is getting on a plane leaving Tehran. And then, you know, 444 days, America held hostage. Where was the moment when it irrevocably went wrong? And what, if you could just say briefly, would you say as Carter’s Iran legacy?

STRONG: Well, if you ask Carter, he would say I promised to get them back alive, the hostages back alive, and I succeeded. If you also ask him do you have any regrets for things you did in the White House, his most common answer is to say I wish I had sent another helicopter, I wish the rescue mission had succeeded.

SORKIN: Right.

STRONG: In Carter’s view, he doesn’t count that as a failure—

SORKIN: As a failure.

STRONG: —though most people do.

EIZENSTAT: And one of the reasons I think my book has been well-received is I am extremely critical of the way we handled Iran. Now, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Carter is somehow responsible for the Islamic revolution and the fact that the shah left, in effect, in exile, any more than it’s fair to say that Eisenhower was responsible for the Cuban Revolution ninety miles from our shore in 1959 or that Obama was responsible for Mubarak losing his post.

But having said that, it was the single-worst intelligence failure in American history. We didn’t realize—the CIA didn’t tell the president—didn’t know that the shah had lost all of his domestic support. They didn’t know that our principal ally for twenty-five years, the recipient of our most sophisticated arms, had lost not only the support, but was getting for five years secret treatment for uncurable cancer. He was a sick man. They didn’t appreciate how Khomeini, the head of the revolution in exile outside of Paris, is sending back cassettes which were inflaming the public.

And was there a time—Amy, you asked—when we could have somehow stopped it? Perhaps. There were mixed messages sent and the mixed messages were that Zbig Brzezinski, our national security adviser, said the only way to save the shah is by forcing him to crack down on the demonstrators with tough military action. And we supported Vance, the secretary of state says no, we should negotiate, we should make concessions to the non, you know, radical opposition.

The shah never received a very clear signal, but he himself said in his own memoir, and Zehedi, his last ambassador, who I interviewed said the shah refused to pull the trigger on the demonstrators at a critical time.

COMPTON: Cascading effect, too. One year after that Tehran New Year’s dinner, the shah leaves Iran. He is sick. He goes, what, to Egypt, he goes to Mexico. On October, on October 22 of ’79, President Carter finally agreed that the shah could come where he wanted to come, come to New York, come to Cornell to get the treatment—to get treatment. Thirteen days later, the Americans were taken hostage in the embassy.

EIZENSTAT: And interestingly, Ann is so right on timing. Kissinger, Secretary Kissinger, with whom I have a very good relationship, and David Rockefeller organized a very sophisticated lobbying and public relations campaign to insist that the shah be allowed into the United States for medical treatment. Carter was the last holdout; Vance came around, Mondale came around. And Carter said to us, if I let him in, what do we do if the radical students take over our embassy? He literally said that. So he forecast it. And it was indeed, as Ann suggested, that was the catalyst for the hostage-taking and the 444 days that followed.

SORKIN: I don’t want to neglect all the members here, so let’s move to—let’s have all of you start asking questions. So I want to invite you to join the conversation.

And just a couple of notes again. This is on the record. And just a regular note to wait for the microphone, speak directly into it, and then please stand and state your name and your affiliation.

All right.

Q: Hi. Michael Levin, Titan Steel.

So I came half expecting to hear a version of the operation was a success and the patient died or some—maybe in a coma. So I’m really happy that the patient is up and walking around. Given that new—that historical perspective and given that, no matter how you slice it, Republican or Democrat today, the things that were listed as successes for the Clinton administration are—for the Carter administration are vastly different than what preoccupies today’s White House. What lesson can we learn in today’s real political world from some of those successes of the Carter administration that have been passed over? What chance to human rights, leading with principle, et cetera, working with the military, what of your list do you think, or is it just sort of hopeless?

SORKIN: That’s a great question. And think about it as, if you’re—if a president asks you, what should I learn from this about being a president?

EIZENSTAT: Ann, you want to start?

COMPTON: Do you want to go?

EIZENSTAT: I’ll be glad to, but Bob?

STRONG: Go ahead.

EIZENSTAT: All right. So I would say the lessons are the following. First of all, it is important for president’s to be informed when they make decisions. It is important when you go into summits to understand the people with whom you’re dealing. And that’s going to be the secret to success. These are not photo opportunities.

Martin Indyk is in the back. Martin is an expert on the Middle East. He knows you’ve got to be informed to make decisions.

Second, it’s critically important for the United States to have alliances. Many of the things we succeeded at were because we worked closely with the Germans, the French, and others in what the predecessor was of the European Union.

SORKIN: The Republicans?

EIZENSTAT: But that’s very important as well.

The third is a domestic thing, which is so palpably missing now. So many of our successes—Panama, energy, the environment, ethics laws—were done with bipartisan support, people who were willing to go across the aisle. And if we have—it’s very difficult in our polarized society, but it has to start with the president of the United States. If the president tries to reach bipartisan agreements, people will come his way. The president has a magnetic effect on people.

If, on the other hand, we try to divide and further polarize, it makes governing in our democracy and our division of powers between the president and the legislative branch exceedingly difficult.


COMPTON: A footnote from the perspective here. Look at how different Washington and our government is now, the poisonous atmosphere in Washington. Jimmy Carter, if he wanted to speak to the American people and move them, he had to go through the media. Right now we live in a society where a president can go directly to the American people in a hundred-and-forty characters or online and the message is very often taken directly, not necessarily informed. So we live in a culture now, the digital age, where it has gone way beyond anything that was even imaginable in Jimmy Carter’s day.

Q: Jeff Laurenti.

Two caricatures of that era that remain most vivid, at least in my mind, are, one, a Time magazine cover of Jimmy in the lions’ den in which a saintly figure dressed in white with a staff is surrounded by dangerous lions with Hua Guofeng’s face and Leonid Brezhnev’s and the others. And the other is, over the four years, an ever-shrinking Jimmy Carter in political cartoons, suggesting an ever-less-capable figure at shaping events, becoming whinier and smaller as he goes along. Certainly, the former represented a view of Carter and America in the world. Was the latter, which seemed also to have an enormous impact on public appreciation of the Carter presidency, related to his foreign policy efforts? Or was it strictly a domestic critique?

EIZENSTAT: Why don’t you start and I’ll—

STRONG: Let me start. And this is also coming back to the previous question in a way.

Carter, when he was in office, was accused of being inexperienced, politically naïve. There’s some justice to that. But I think that was misunderstood. He got excellent political advice. Don’t do Panama. Save it for your second term. Don’t do Camp David if you’re not sure it’s going to succeed. He got excellent political advice.

Hamilton Jordan wrote a member to him. Here’s your list of things you want to do. Let me tell you how many votes it’s going to cost you in 1980. You’re going to lose if you do all of these things.

Carter got that political advice and went ahead and did those things anyway. I think he believed that the American people would see that he had taken risks, done controversial things, and come around to appreciate what had been accomplished. But he was wrong. And that cartoon picture of him getting smaller and smaller, of him being attacked by a rabbit in a boat, the things that happened to his image are partly a function of his willingness to take on hard tasks and do his best.

EIZENSTAT: So I want to respond on the ever-shrinking Jimmy Carter. I think it was due to three things. The first is there was a sense of a lack of control. When you have enervating long-term inflation, as we had the entire decade, when you have gasoline lines, when you have rising unemployment, the president has only so much control over the economy. I think his most important domestic thing was appointing Paul Volcker and letting him apply the stiffest monetary medicine. But there was a sense of a lack of control of the economy.

And then the hostage crisis reinforced that lack of control. Here we are dealing with a so-called third-rate country with an aging ayatollah, who’s isolated supposedly from the mainstream, and we can’t get our hostages out. That was devastating.

And third, Carter’s great strength was his great weakness. His great strength was, as Bob suggested, and as I mentioned in the book, his willingness, not as a weak president, as a strong president, to take on these challenges regardless of politics. That’s why he did Panama and the Middle East and energy and things that were wildly unpopular, and succeeded.

But the weakness was he forgot that the president is not only commander in chief. He has to be politician in chief. He has to nurture a party, keep his party together, avoid interparty warfare, stoke his base, which this current president does every minute of every day. That’s part of being president. And you sometimes have to shape your policy to meet those political realities. And he refused to do it, thinking, as Bob said, if I’m successful at these, I’ll be rewarded ultimately. It’s not that he didn’t want to be reelected. Of course, he did. And had we had a better economy, had we not had the hostage crisis, he would have been.

Q: Herbert Levin, Council member.

When President Carter went to Korea, he said he was going to pull the troops out because he did not want to use American troops to defend a dictatorship. When he got to Seoul, he told the country team this is what he was going to tell President Park. And they told him that he was wrong, that the North Koreans would take advantage of this to attack and it would be a worse situation.

And for those who were in the car, the limousine going over to the Blue House, he—they argued with him. And he said, no, he’s going to do it. And he was silent. And then he got in with President Park and he did not say we’re going to pull the troops out, and he didn’t.

Afterwards he got back into the limo and said he didn’t need any company. He went back alone. And when he got back to Washington, he ruined the career of every Foreign Service officer who had argued with him. From Bill Gleysteen, the ambassador, on down, they were finished. Nobody got a decent assignment, and some—their resignations were accepted.

So I’m not saying this characterizes the man’s whole life, but there is a vignette of those who worked with him during that visit, who describe him as petty and vindictive and narrow-minded. Could you shed some light on this? (Laughter.)

EIZENSTAT: Yes. I was his policy director also when he ran for president, and he made the commitment that he was going to take the troops out, thirty thousand troops. We were in a post-Vietnam era.

I have a very different take on that visit, and that is that going into it he had already been briefed by Brzezinski not to do so, that it would be catastrophic in terms of the impact of our leadership, and that while he was angry at the fact that he couldn’t follow through on his campaign pledge, he realized that to do so would have been disastrous for our leadership in Asia. And not only then did he not do it; we increased defense spending by an average of 3 percent a year. We reversed the post-Vietnam decline. And all the weapon systems, as I mentioned, that Reagan deployed, we greenlighted.

So South Korea was a real lesson for him. And while he grumbled about not being able to do it, he realized the reality was that if he did it, it would be a disaster.

Q: Thank you. Martin Indyk from the Council—

COMPTON: And who are you? (Laughs.)

Q: —staff. I want to take off from Ann’s reminding us that President Carter viewed the shah as an island of stability. This is a question for you, Stu, which is to tell us a lesson for today, where we have a Saudi leader in Mohammad bin Salman who has been a so-called pillar of stability, Saudi Arabia, stability in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf, taking on the role that the shah once played of being the pillar against the forces of instability there; in particular, ironically, Iran. And he, like the shah, is a reformer.

But now we have a problem with him. And I wonder, given the experience with the shah in his last days before the revolution, whether you can draw some lessons from what Carter failed to do in those days for what you think President Trump should do now in the context of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

EIZENSTAT: So it’s really, not surprisingly, an excellent question from Martin.

So I’ve thought about this a good deal. First of all, I’ve thought a great deal of how Iran was lost. So, again, I don’t think Carter can be blamed for it, but we did have this massive intelligence failure. And I think that the difference was this. In Iran there was an opportunity for many years, for many presidents, including Carter, to nudge the shah over into more of a constitutional monarch.

Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia, had a very highly educated, empowered electorate. The shah had ironically gone from having been an autocrat, with SAVAK and all of its crackdown, to trying to liberalize too quickly, getting ahead of his society, alienating not just the fundamentalists but the landowners, the bazaar merchants, and so forth.

The difference in Saudi Arabia is that you have a very different electorate without any history of democracy. There was a history of democracy in Iran. And it seems to me the lesson is that we do get intoxicated by monarchs, but we also have to look at what the alternatives are.

So in Iran we would have been much better off if we could have bucked the shah up, had him gradually liberalize, backed him up strongly, tried to keep him in office as a constitutional monarch, but open the system up. Here we have a different situation in Saudi Arabia. I think we don’t have much of an alternative. I mean, we certainly can’t somehow create a democracy any more than we could out of Iraq.

But for a president to try to defend and take the line that they’re giving about how the death occurred, how the assassination occurred, just degrades the United States. If we’re going to accept the fact that we have to have this guy, MBS, because we need him for other reasons, that’s one thing. But it degrades the United States and our whole credibility to try to take the line that they’re taking, that the preposterous reasons given are the reasons he was assassinated.

So I think, Martin, to me the lesson is if you’ve got a monarch, try to have him liberalize. That’s what MBS is doing. We should support that, but we should certainly give him signals, publicly and privately, that this kind of conduct will end up eroding your support and making it more difficult for you to do it. And for God’s sake, don’t start embracing all the ridiculous reasons being given for the assassination.

SORKIN: Now, the legitimacy of his liberalization efforts probably people have a lot of opinions about. But I want to ask, just following up on that, where the line is between intelligence failure and willful blindness.

STRONG: Let me just comment briefly. There were two major intelligence failures in the 1970s. One was that we didn’t know that the shah had cancer. He was ill, and that was going to affect his thinking about the world, his decision-making.

The other failure is that while we saw that there might be revolt against the shah, we didn’t imagine that the victor of that revolt would be an aging ayatollah who would create a theocracy in Iran. That was unexpected, not just to Carter but to a wide swath of America expert opinion. And we were caught off guard by what transpired. We have since then seen various versions of Islamic fundamentalism in that part of the world that continue to vex us.

EIZENSTAT: There’s one other thing, Martin. Gary Sick, who was our National Security Council expert on Iran, used a very telling phrase when he looked back. He said here was a country and a ruler who was our bulwark for decades. And Gary said policymakers had an unrelieved ignorance about the very country and ruler we had backed.

And that’s part of this intelligence failure; I mean, just not understanding the country, not understanding the forces. When Carter never—I mean, it’s thought that, well, his human-rights campaign undermined the shah. No, he gave the shah a pass. He privately said to him you need to reach out to the opposition. But when his ambassador—and this was part of the mixed signals—William Sullivan in ’78, before the takeover, wrote a cable called Thinking the Unthinkable, saying we should be reaching out to Khomeini, Carter wanted him fired. He asked Vance to fire him. He didn’t try to undercut the shah. He privately said reach out to the opposition. He never tried to publicly do that.

But again, the intelligence failures are just overwhelming. And it shows how little we know about these societies. And I suspect, with respect—


EIZENSTAT: —to Saudi Arabia, it may be the same.

SORKIN: Very sad commentary on what we’re looking at today. Every news story, every mainstream news story about Khashoggi and what the administration, what the president has said about the explanations, has clearly stated, of which there’s no evidence, of which we know is not true, of which—in today’s climate, even news reporting, which points out the inaccuracies, isn’t enough to stop the president from speaking the way he does.

So to answer—to go back to the question, what’s the advice—just have better intelligence or weigh the risks differently?

EIZENSTAT: Well, it’s both. I mean, first, it is—why didn’t we have better intelligence in Iran? Because SAVAK, created by the shah—the shah said this is my intelligence. I’m relying on them. You, the CIA, and you, the embassy, may not reach out to any opposition groups. The only thing the CIA was allowed to do was to look at intelligence with the Soviet Union, using a base in Iran, not internal intelligence.

So we have to say, if we’re transferring billions of dollars, as we do for Saudi Arabia, we have to understand what’s happening on the ground. And then, yes, we have to weigh the risks better. We have to have—and I suspect it hasn’t happened in this administration any more than it did in ours—where you sit the experts down and say, look, the shah is shaky. MBS is shaking. What’s next? Where do we—what is likely to happen? Is there another prince that’s going to take over? And what will that mean? And I suspect that thinking is not happening today.

Q: Just to point out, we don’t have an ambassador there.

EIZENSTAT: We don’t even have an ambassador there.

SORKIN: An ambassador there.

EIZENSTAT: Yeah, we have no ambassador there.

SORKIN: I want to make sure we get some more questions in. Right here.

Q: So during the hostage crisis, I was at the U.N. And my boss, Donald McHenry, who was the senior ambassador, was part of the negotiations with the Iranians through the media of the Algerians. But there were many other negotiations going on.

So one of the questions I have is, did we have any understanding that there was no unity in the Iranian government, that there was nobody really in charge? And we didn’t really know who our interlocutor should be. And that was, in my view, one of the reasons that the negotiations took so long. I’m curious about your recollections.

EIZENSTAT: OK. So the first is, my book is not entitled If He’d Only Listened to Me. (Laughter.) I made enough mistakes to fill an ocean as well. But one mistake I didn’t make is when the hostages were taken, Joan, I recommended and Brzezinski recommended immediate military action—not bombing Tehran, but blockading or mining the harbors off Kharg Island, where almost all their oil went, to show that we were going to choke that economy.

Second, you worked on sanctions and I did too. We could not get the European countries or Japan to join us in sanctions. So they never felt the kind of pain that they would have over—(inaudible).

Third, in terms of the negotiations, we had two tracks. We had the traditional track going on. And then Ham Jordan had his own track with Hal Saunders at State Department, working through some lawyers from Paris who had contacts deep in.

But the real problem is we didn’t understand at that point—remember, this is the first Islamic revolution. We’re in the early months. We had a number of agreements to release the hostages—a number. And every time Khomeini would veto it. And we didn’t—he never—we never negotiated with him. To this day, his successor, Khamenei, no Westerner has ever met with him—never.

And so the supreme power was in the hands of someone we didn’t understand. We don’t understand it well today. And we were negotiating with people who didn’t, in the end, have the authority to produce. That wouldn’t have been necessary, in my opinion, had we taken the military action initially.

And the reason I reinforce—why didn’t Carter do it? He did, as Bob said, met with the hostage families. He said my number one goal is to get your loved ones out healthy and free. And he did, but at great humiliation to him and to the country. And I believe that had we taken firm action, it would have succeeded. He said, no, the hostages will come back; they’ll come back in coffins.

I don’t think that’s the case. And the reason I don’t is because, number one, Khomeini couldn’t have risked hurting the hostages. It would have started a clear war, which he knows he couldn’t have won. And the second reason is Carter did pass along through the Swiss the following message: If there are any show trials or if one hair on the head of any of our hostages is hurt, there’ll be a military action immediately. Khomeini never had a show trial and never mistreated the hostages. So that reinforces my notion that firm action at the beginning would have avoided this catastrophic, humiliating, you know, set of negotiations.

And remember what happened. Ted Koppel’s Nightline program comes because Carter makes the mistake, after not taking military action, of holing himself up in the White House and of not campaigning, of not going to foreign trips to show he was focusing on this solely. Well, that made him a hostage in the White House. It gave Khomeini more authority.

So the Nightline program starts with Koppel. And then, you know, Walter Cronkite, at the end of every program at CBS, day 103, day 406 of the hostage crisis. It was ridiculous.

And I want to belie one last thing, which is the failure of the hostage rescue. It did not fail—and this was another courageous step, actually—it didn’t fail because there were too few helicopters. Carter misremembers. He added two more to the six the military wanted. There were a series of catastrophic failures, windstorms.

But the basic reason was there were four military services that needed to coordinate. There was no joint command. We created one later. They never practiced the whole thing together—never. And so when the rotor blade of one of those helicopters hit the C-130 cargo plane, which was there to refuel the helicopters to take them into Tehran and it burst into flames and the servicemen died, they died, and our administration went with them.

SORKIN: And that’s—yeah, these moments, these single moments that you can’t control, that define a legacy.

The only thing that I can control is my commitment to—the Council’s commitment that all of our meetings end on time. So I’m so sorry for all the people who didn’t have a chance to ask their questions. I’m sure people will be able to hang around for a little longer. And thank you so much.

Thanks to the three of you. This is a great discussion. (Applause.)


Top Stories on CFR



One of Asia’s most important annual economic gatherings still does not include India, a flaw that undermines efforts to expand trade and innovation throughout the region.

Robots and Artificial Intelligence