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A Role for President Carter

Lawrence Freedman: Well, the three top events, and it was a surprisingly rich period for events, are the Camp David Summit of ’78, and then Arab/Israel- and the Egyptian-Israeli treaty of March of that year, which Americans broke it all the way through, the Iranian revolution, which is obviously critical for everything that’s happened since, which culminated with the departure of the Shah in January, 1979. And

the, the coup, as it basically was, in Afghanistan, in 1978, which led eventually to the Soviet intervention at the end of ’79. So, we’re dealing with the legacy of all of those events now. Iraq was brought into the play when Saddam Hussein made himself President in the summer of ’79, in part because of the NIFA response to the Iranian resolution- he was already the regime’s strong man. There were- after the American embassy seizure in November of ’79- there was an event in Pakistan, in Saudi Arabia- which sort of added to the sense of drama and radicalized those countries, as well. So, all sorts of things followed from those events. It’s just one of those times when a number of different strands come together to produce a rather explosive combination.

Question: How well did the Carter presidency handle the situation?

I think- I mean, a number of things struck me about the Carter presidency. I mean, Carter himself, obviously a thoroughly decent sort of guy, hadn’t really before dealt with issues of this sort in this sort of way. The engineer in him was always believing that there was sort of a rational way through. Also, the thing that struck me about Carter, which worked with some people but not with others- was a very personal approach. So, if he got on with people, and thought that they were responding well to him, he was likely to do more for them than if he found them sort of cold and indifferent. So there’d be a petulant quality that came into that, as well. The

other thing that struck me, which was not at all original, was that the different strands in his thinking, his own thinking, were represented by different players in the Administration, so Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was the National Security Advisor, sort of was on one shoulder as the Hawk, and Cy Vance as the Secretary of State, was on another shoulder as the Dove, and Carter never wholly reconciled this tension. And I think that meant that when you were faced with a fast-moving event, like Iran, it worked pretty poorly. I think when you’re working with a- trying to just work your way through a knotty problem, like Egyptian/Israeli relations, it didn’t work that badly at all, because you could be patient and try to pull the bits together. But with something fast-moving like Iran and Afghanistan, I think the lack of underlying harmony- the inability to resolve these tensions produced a pretty confused policy. On the other hand, the policy was going to be to try to do what was best for the Shah of Iran- at least during ’78- and as the Shah himself didn’t really know what he wanted, and was vacillating, it was hard for the Americans to make up his mind for him. So I think Carter gets an unfair rap in some ways because people remember the vacillation. In other respects, the Americans didn’t really look deep enough at the regime and its vulnerabilities, and therefore allowed themselves to get caught by surprise.

Recorded on 5/19/08

Lawrence Freedman explores the substance and legacy of President Carter's Middle East peace negotiations.

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