What were the main foreign policy achievements of the Carter administration? Where did Carter fail?

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Discussions of foreign policy successes and failures on the part of any particular presidential administration are a very subjective matter. One analyst’s successes are another analyst’s failures. It is up to the individual student to decide for him- or herself which of President Carter’s foreign policy initiatives or reactions were...

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Discussions of foreign policy successes and failures on the part of any particular presidential administration are a very subjective matter. One analyst’s successes are another analyst’s failures. It is up to the individual student to decide for him- or herself which of President Carter’s foreign policy initiatives or reactions were wise and which were ill-considered.

Having spent considerable time studying the Carter Administration’s conduct of foreign policy, this educator concludes that his most notable successes involved prioritization of human rights in Latin America and the Camp David Peace Agreement between Egypt and Israel. The latter accomplishment should not be undervalued by students or analysts. While Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s decision to fly to Israel, thereby both ushering in a new era of Middle Eastern politics and signing his own death warrant (with respect to Islamic extremists in the Egyptian Army who did, in fact, assassinate Sadat, although the peace agreement with Israel was only one of the major reasons for that murder) was made independent of US peace efforts, there is no question that President Carter’s commitment to bringing the Egyptians and Israelis, mortal enemies who had fought several wars over the years, together and his determination to keep those two countries’ leaders together until an agreement was reached, represented an enormous victory for American diplomacy.

President Carter’s other major success in the realm of foreign policy involved the elevation of the importance of human rights in US policy over purely strategic considerations. While some took issue with Carter’s tendency to impose harsh policies on friendly governments while coddling those hostile to the United States, as in his approaches to Nicaragua and El Salvador, the focus on human rights was consistent with the ideal of American values. Right-wing military juntas in Central and South America needed to know that the United States would not ignore those regimes’ human rights records despite their anti-communist stance.

Carter’s main foreign policy failure involved U.S.-Soviet relations. Following the December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union’s leadership having been emboldened by its perception of Carter as a weak leader, the president was surprised by the Soviet action, serving as a reminder of his serious lack of knowledge on international relations and on the Soviet Union, in particular. This was, after all, a hostile totalitarian regime that had invaded Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic states, and other countries on its way to becoming the largest empire in the world. Carter’s approach to the Soviet Union in the earlier years of his administration had been predicated upon the notion that his liberal philosophy of governing and of diplomacy would be positively-received in Moscow. The Soviet Union’s massive expansion in the areas of both nuclear and conventional weapons and its belligerent public statements displayed no indication that Carter’s approach was working. The invasion of Afghanistan was the final nail in the coffin of that approach.

Some might argue that Carter’s handling of the Iranian revolution was a major failure. Whether Carter should have stood by the Shah of Iran during the latter’s decline, however, is questionable. While many Iranians have been dismayed by the brutality and repressiveness of the Islamic Republic that replaced the monarchy, the Shah was hardly a sympathetic figure and there is little or nothing that the American president could have done to prevent his fall from power. Carter’s handling of the Iranian regime’s orchestrated seizure of the U.S. Embassy, however, was another matter. The Iranian regime’s seizure of U.S. territory—embassies are considered the sovereign territory of whatever nation maintains one—and the ensuing 444-day hostage crisis served more than any other incident or policy of the Carter Administration to bolster the perception among many governments and populations that the American president was a weak figure who could be defied with impunity. Finally, the failed hostage rescue mission—Operation Eagle Claw—represented the final indignity and embarrassment of the president; although, he can hardly be blamed for the dismal planning and execution of the rescue effort.

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