Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
of giving up pretzels and potato chips in favor of broccoli and asparagus is one thing. Actually following through tends to be something else again. And so it was with Carter’s call to restore American virtue through self-denial and sacrifice. The imagined satisfaction of reconstituting the United States as a sort of Amish community stretching from sea to shining sea had a limited shelf life. As Americans contemplated all that they would be obliged to give up, the prospect became less attractive.
The carping started within days. “Mr. President, we’re not out of confidence,”
Wall Street Journal
columnist Roger Ricklefs complained, “we’re out of gas.”
Ronald Reagan, positioning himself for another run at the presidency, quickly chimed in, chiding Carter for “shifting the blame to the people.”
Irving Kristol, godfather of the emergent neoconservative movement, embellished Reagan’s theme, lambasting Carter for “scapegoating the American people.” According to Kristol, self-interest, not self-sacrifice, formed the “bedrock of our heterogeneous and pluralistic society.”
took precedence over
. The columnist George Will concurred. The United States was a “big, muscular nation” consisting of many factions with competing interests. “The politician’s task,” Will continued, is “to broker them, not to sermonize against them.”
But it was Eugene Kennedy, former Catholic priest and a professor of psychology at Chicago’s Loyola University, who weighed in with the most devastating appraisal. Kennedy’s essay “Carter Agonistes,” appearing in
The New York Times Magazine,
insisted that the only one afflicted with a “crisis of confidence” was the president himself. Kennedy likened Carter to “the parson, who having studied hard and said his prayers, is scandalized to discover sin in the congregation.” By “blaming others for the house of woe he inhabited,” the president had “infected Americans with his own gloom.” But Americans weren’t buying, Kennedy divined. Carter was making “a moral issue out of a basic economic problem,” one that they expected him to address. They were sick of “the played-out thesis” that as Americans they were “all guilty for everything,” including “every kind of self-gorging sin, original or not, in the archives of wickedness.” They didn’t want some “distressed angel, passing judgment” on their failings. They wanted a president who would fix things. When it came to oil, that meant more, not less.
Fair or not, accurate or not, Kennedy’s savage critique stuck. In the end, Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech—subsequently enshrined as his “malaise” speech—flopped and became emblematic of his perceived inability to lead.
What had occurred was democracy through informal plebiscite. Carter had taken his case directly to the people, asking them to decide. Reaction to the speech served as a de facto referendum on the correlation between oil and the American way of life. The outcome of that referendum was unambiguous: In the eyes of most Americans, the two remained inextricably linked.
Carter had invited his fellow citizens to think otherwise. Yet doing so would necessarily entail redefining freedom. This Americans refused to do. With that refusal, the Persian Gulf and its environs acquired massively heightened significance. Ensuring regional stability and access to its resources became for the United States a categorical imperative.
So a speech intended to chart an alternative course had the opposite effect. It foreclosed alternatives, reducing Carter’s room for maneuver. In short order, two dramatic developments abroad—each of which Washington radically misunderstood—completed his entrapment. By default, the logic of Wolfowitz’s Limited Contingency Study prevailed. To ensure American access to oil, Carter, would-be peacemaker and advocate of spiritual renewal, took his country to war.
Even as he was searching for a mechanism to disentangle the United States from the Greater Middle East, President Carter was simultaneously approving an initiative destined to embroil the United States more deeply in that region. On July 3, 1979, the very day the president departed for the ten-day retreat at Camp David that culminated with his “malaise” speech, he signed off on a memo committing the United States to assist Afghan insurgents who were warring against the Soviet-supported regime in Kabul. The amount involved was small—initially, only five hundred thousand dollars. Material provided would be primarily “non-lethal”—medical supplies and communications equipment, for example—with a few crates of obsolete British rifles thrown in for good measure.
But the scope of the initial investment belied the magnitude of the mayhem the United States was seeking to promote.
Three months earlier, a mid-level Pentagon official attending a White House meeting called to consider Afghanistan’s growing political instability suggested that the situation there offered the possibility of “sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire.”
The idea caught on. Considered in a Cold War context, the prospect of inducing conflict on the scale of Vietnam exerted great appeal. That such a conflict might, however inadvertently, yield adverse consequences for the United States (never mind the Afghan people) simply did not occur.
From our distant vantage point we may wonder how a war comparable to Vietnam could prove beneficial for anyone. At the time, such considerations had no purchase. In the dichotomous logic of the Cold War, whatever discomfited the Soviets automatically qualified as desirable and was presumed to be strategically advantageous.
The Shah’s overthrow, wrote Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser, had shattered the “protected tier shielding the crucial oil-rich region of the Persian Gulf from possible Soviet intrusion.” What better way to prevent the Kremlin from capitalizing on this opportunity than to throw in with the “Afghan freedom fighters” opposed to Soviet meddling in Afghan affairs.
Fomenting trouble in Afghanistan would dissuade the Soviets from meddling in the Persian Gulf. Such was the expectation, at least.
So the explicit purpose of aiding Afghan insurgents, Brzezinski subsequently acknowledged, was to “induce a Soviet military intervention,” which the United States intended to exploit for its own purposes.
Meanwhile, the toppling of the Shah and the triumph of the Islamic Revolution had not yet persuaded the United States to give up on Iran. Throughout most of 1979, the Carter administration looked for ways to reach an accommodation with Tehran’s new rulers. A formal alliance might be out of the question, but oil and a shared antagonism toward the Soviet Union seemed to offer the prospect of fruitful collaboration. Avoiding outright antipathy still seemed a possibility.
So contacts between senior U.S. and Iranian officials continued. On November 1, for example, Brzezinski met privately in Algiers with Iran’s prime minister, offering assurances that “we are prepared for any relationship you want….We have a basic community of interests but we do not know what you want us to do.” Brzezinski made it clear that virtually nothing was off limits. “The American government,” he emphasized, “is prepared to expand security, economic, political, and intelligence relationships at your pace.”
The invitation was nothing if not open-ended: Let’s make a deal.
Within a handful of days, however, Iran offered the United States ample reason to withdraw that invitation. On October 22, Carter had allowed the Shah to enter the United States for medical treatment. On November 4, outraged Iranian students, interpreting a humane gesture to a dying man as a portent of counterrevolutionary action, expressed their anger by overrunning the U.S. embassy in Tehran and taking members of the embassy staff prisoner.
From the students’ perspective, having once mounted a coup on the Shah’s behalf, the United States seemed likely to do so once again. Any expression of sympathy for the despised former monarch amounted to a provocation, the equivalent of offering sanctuary to a known war criminal. From Washington’s perspective, the embassy seizure was more than an outrageous violation of diplomatic protocol. With the Iranian government assumed to have instigated the attack, it was tantamount to an act of war.
In fact, each party misconstrued the other’s actual motives. The Carter administration had no intention of replaying the events of 1953 by mounting another coup on the Shah’s behalf. Further, the Ayatollah Khomeini had not ordered the students to seize the U.S. embassy and appears to have had no prior knowledge of their plan. The students had acted of their own volition, with the evidence suggesting that they intended only to “make a statement” rather than to touch off a protracted crisis.
Yet Khomeini himself soon endorsed what the students had done. In doing so, he transformed what might have been a difficult, but not insoluble, diplomatic problem into a standoff charged with a symbolism that raised the stakes appreciably.
So began an excruciating ordeal that would continue for 444 days, ending only on the very date that Jimmy Carter left office. From the outset, safely freeing the hostages remained Carter’s first priority, a position that necessarily limited U.S. policy options. Yet efforts to negotiate, reinforced by diplomatic condemnation and economic sanctions, failed to produce a resolution. As the crisis dragged on, the sense of mortifying helplessness deepened, affirming already existing impressions that President Carter was weak and inept. That Pakistani students burned the U.S. embassy in Islamabad to the ground on November 21 while Libyan protestors set fire to the shuttered U.S. embassy in Tripoli on December 4 served to reinforce this impression.
So too did obsessive media coverage. “The great American television networks placed their full facilities at the service of the captors,” wrote George Ball, formerly a high official at the State Department, “faithfully recording their grunts and gestures, when they assembled each day at the appointed hour to shout abusive slogans and shake their fists with contrived ferocity at the camera lens.”
To report on each day’s developments (or lack thereof), ABC television unveiled a nightly newscast called
America Held Hostage,
the very title driving home the magnitude of Carter’s failure.
Ball likened the result to “a long-running soap opera.” Others took the matter more seriously. Even the First Lady lost patience, Rosalynn Carter, by her own account, chiding her husband to “Do something! Do something!”
As an incumbent earnestly hoping for a second term, the president was looking ever more vulnerable.
Yet behind the scenes, the premises of U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East were already undergoing revision. The argument embedded in Wolfowitz’s Limited Contingency Study—that the United States should rely on soldiers rather than diplomats to secure its interests in the region—was gaining traction. Laying the groundwork for direct military action was emerging as an urgent priority.
Just one month into the hostage crisis, at a National Security Council meeting on December 4, 1979, President Carter directed the Pentagon to look for bases and other facilities in and around the Persian Gulf.
Ten days later a delegation of State and Defense Department officials departed Washington for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Somalia, and Kenya. Their mission was to begin conversations about obtaining U.S. military access to those countries, sweetening those requests with promises of increased U.S. military aid.
Much work remained to be done to make large-scale U.S. armed intervention possible. But that work had now begun.
At this juncture, the Carter administration’s hopes of covertly instigating further unrest in Afghanistan seemingly bore fruit. On Christmas Eve 1979, Soviet forces entered that country and murdered the president, a communist who had outlived his usefulness. After installing in power a puppet more to the Kremlin’s liking, the occupiers set out to pacify a country that time and again had demonstrated intense hostility to foreign occupation. Soviet leaders intervened in Afghanistan because they feared that instability in that country could endanger the larger Soviet empire.
In the end, intervention brought about the very outcome they were attempting to avert.
In Washington, a different interpretation of Soviet intentions, one more in keeping with Cold War imperatives, prevailed. Senior U.S. officials and other influential observers attributed Russian behavior not to fear but to ambition. This was certainly Brzezinski’s view, expressed in a December 26 memo to President Carter. The Russians were on the march. Absent a firm U.S. response, the national security adviser envisioned a “Soviet presence right down on the edge of the Arabian and Oman Gulfs.”
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—a development he had actively promoted—transformed “that neutral buffer into an offensive wedge.” Soviet control of this offensive wedge, he quickly concluded, would encourage the Kremlin to turn next to “dismembering Pakistan and Iran.”
Carter himself endorsed this view, characterizing Soviet actions in Afghanistan as “an unprecedented act” and “the most serious threat to world peace since the Second World War,” thereby ranking it above the Berlin Blockade, the Korean War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis on the roster of Cold War emergencies.