For most of my adult life, I regarded Jimmy Carter as at least the second worst president in the twentieth century (behind Lyndon Johnson). The pathetic “malaise” speech (though never actually using the word) he gave in a cardigan sweater to show that the White House was conserving energy as a solution to the Arab oil embargoes, attempting to lead the way for the country to buckle its energy belt tighter and clamp down on such energy-wasting luxuries as heat during the winter, disgusted me. No matter how bad things are in the hinterlands, the country wants its White House–a potent symbol of its national prestige–kept comfortable through all the seasons. The follow-on disaster in the desert, when the most powerful nation in the world could not even get its helicopters airborne to attempt a rescue of hostages being held at the American embassy in Tehran, poignantly underscored for me the ineptitude of his Administration and of his presidential leadership.
Time has softened the rough edges of my contempt. I now know that Carter, while perhaps somewhat inept in protecting America’s international standing, was not to blame for the hideous economic performance the country suffered during his presidency. The late-seventies/early eighties recession, culminating in 1982 with a misery index (inflation rate plus unemployment rate) breaching the twenty-point mark for a time, was mostly the fault of exogenous supply shocks (the Arab oil embargo of 1979), and a feckless monetary policy for dealing with them. There’ s not much any president could have done to prevent economic troubles in the face of the severe supply restraints caused by the oil embargoes. Carter made some wise economic moves, but unfortunately for him, none that bore fruit until the embargo ended and he’d already left office. In particular, he set in motion a deregulatory scheme in the transportation sector that opened airline, rail and trucking markets to competition and all the efficiencies thereby to be gained, which played heavily in the seven fat economic years Reagan and his successor would enjoy during their presidencies.
Carter has spent his post-presidential years as an international humanitarian, pointing out human rights abuses where he’s seen them, sometimes ameliorating conflicts by helping political antagonists get to the negotiating table before resorting to bullets and bombs. Much to the consternation of Republican neo-conservatives, he has repeatedly pointed out the reality that in any conflict there are always two sides to the story (not just the American side), and that good and evil are often matters of perspective. His nuanced views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, pointing out that both sides have resorted to barbaric and atrocious actions in pursuit of their aims, have infuriated a certain segment of the American polity (the religious right, neo-conservative internationalists, the Jewish American community) that refuses to acknowledge Israel is ever the aggressor, instead of victim, in the conflict.
I understand now that what I saw as Carter’s ineptitude at protecting America’s international standing and interests abroad comes from a deep-seated antagonism he has for the abuse of power from any quarter, including our own (or any nation’s) impulse to swagger and strut on the international stage. Carter was not well-suited psychologically for asserting American interests in the profoundly Darwinian international arena because he doesn’t see things solely from the point of view that America’s interests are paramount. Carter does not see people as simply members of nations. He sees them as human beings, endowed with rights bestowed by Providence, to be treated humanely, just as America’s founding documents provide. Ironically, this is the same sort of perspective held by the libertarian wing of the Republican party, and is probably closer to Reagan’s views of man in society than any neo-con would ever care to admit.
Having spent his post-presidential life as a thorn in the side of Republican Administrations, Carter has now focused his ire on the Obama Administration for, inter alia, its policy of assassination by pilotless drone, and its refusal to do as it pledged in closing Guantanamo. Here’s Mr. Carter’s words from a column in today’s New York Times:
THE United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.
Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended. This development began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues.
My only objection is his claim that all this has been accomplished without dissent from the general public. Though only a lonely curmudgeon in the attic, I am a member of the general public, and through this blog, I have repeatedly expressed my dissent at the “Bushama” Administration’s actions, and I know I am not alone in how I feel. But he’s correct that most people have ignored the vast usurpations of individual liberties and rights that have obtained since 9-11, and all because some Islamist fanatics had one good day. Ask yourselves, is it really worth never having another 9-11 if the cost is allowing the government to unilaterally, summarily execute its own citizens? Three thousand people die on the highways every weekend, but the concentrated loss of that many in a brazen and ultimately futile attack is enough to discard the Constitutional protections of due process and privacy? We have allowed 9-11 to destroy the Constitution, discounting the lives of millions who were sacrificed to protect it through the years to less than the value of the three thousand lost that day. What sort of bargain is this? Though the attack itself was futile, in that the resulting loss of life and property were barely a blip on America’s radar screen, it was successful in facilitating our self-destructive shredding of the Constitution. When a service member vows to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” as each one pledges upon entering service, what now is there left to protect?
As the Fourth of July holiday approaches, perhaps it would be worthwhile to remember the words of the document whose signing is celebrated that day, and whose ideas are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights cited by Carter in his column:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.
If it is true that “…whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [of securing the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish, and to institute new Government…”, then is it now time for a revolution? How can a government that summarily executes its own citizens not be considered destructive of the end of securing life?
Questions to ponder, while the politicians try to pander their way to election. They’ll pledge to provide the bread and circuses if you’ll allow them to unilaterally decide who lives and who dies, a Faustian bargain if ever there were one.