American Presidency: Recalling the Failures of Jimmy Carter

 26. září 2016  Natália Poláková  komentáře

American domestic political atmosphere was marked with scepticism and disillusionment after the Watergate affair and subsequent impeachment of President Nixon. Neither his vice-president Ford gained much success when granting Nixon a controversial presidential pardon. Thus, the presidential elections of 1976 was considered an inevitable outcome of public dissatisfaction over the incompetent administrations of the 1970’s, which failed during the harsh period of the oil shortage and tensions surging with the Middle East and Soviet Union.

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The newly-elected Democrat Jimmy Carter, a former Governor of Georgia, was at the time a relatively unknown figure in American politics. Although he successfully captured most of the votes in the South, his victory over Gerald Ford was rather marginal. He represented a promising choice of a moral and religious character attempting to purify the actions of the former disastrous presidencies and regain public confidence. Whether President Carter truly enabled Americans to be “proud of their Government once again” is highly debatable due to mixed reception among the public ("Jimmy Carter: Inaugural Address."). This paper is to analyze major failures of Jimmy Carter’s presidency in the terms of insufficiently elaborated domestic and foreign policies.

First of all, unfortunately Jimmy Carter took over the country during the turbulent years with the economy in a tragic state called stagflation characterized by low output but high inflation and unemployment, until then an unexplained phenomenon to the economists in the White House. Therefore, he had to seek feasible solutions to deal with the legacy of the OPEC embargo of 1973 followed by another oil shock in 1979 in the wake of Iranian revolution, the primary reasons of the rising price levels. As the public usually assess the successfulness of the policies based on the current economic well-being, this was definitely a terrible time to make a good impression. What is more, his policies were just mere demonstrations of his obsession for a perfect policy procession and implementation rather than its content (Link S.A. and Link W.A. 640).  In many cases they were highlighted by their inconsistency and unclear contribution.

Though the United States is rich in natural resources, the overly reliance on the oil imports led to an unpopular energy policy. As Carter said, “energy will test the character of the American people and the ability of the President and the Congress to govern” ("President Carter's Address to the Nation on Proposed National Energy Policy.").  His conservation program introduced higher oil taxes in order to discourage the oil consumption. However, Americans were not prepared to “drastically change their consumption patterns overnight” or wear sweaters to offset the heating as President Carter was claimed to do so (Camp 459, "Jimmy Carter on Energy & Oil.".). The golden years of the 50’s and 60’s turned the society into the greedy consumers unable to fight in a “moral equivalent of the war” ("President Carter's Address to the Nation on Proposed National Energy Policy.").

Further miscomprehension among the consumers was generated by pointing to general efficiency of the cars Americans got increasingly used to. Carter encouraged demand for more fuel-efficient cars by means of pursuing so-called CAFE standards to improve the average fuel economy of the cars fit for sale. These standards raised the overall car efficiency but increased the costs in the terms of production and technology development at the time many car producers were struggling to handle their market positions. Furthermore, he did not take fully into account that Japanese imported cars were becoming more economical than American ones posing a serious competition threat to local car producers such as Ford or Chrysler ("Jimmy Carter: National Energy Program Fact Sheet on the President's Program").

Another important point of Carter’s energy policy was his vision of abundant coal supplies that encouraged American electrical utilities to burn coal instead of oil by means of doubling coal production. Unfortunately the policy met with the outrage from the coal mine workers. One of the reasons was the approaching negotiation of new labour contracts suggested by the coal employers, a response to Carter’s request to maintain wage and price increases in the nation’s industries to a minimum to avoid further inflationary spirals (Camp 463). Thus, insecure feasibility of the project as well as a bad timing contributed to the strikes of the powerful trade union United Mine Workers of America and complicated the policy implementation. Additionally, Carter had to invoke the antiunion Taft Hartley Act to force the miners back to work, which tested his authority in the negotiations with the trade union (Camp 459).

Finally, deregulation of the oil prices spurred disapproval in Congress. It obviously accomplished the goal to deter the excessive consumption. On the other hand, it severely impacted on the low-income population dependent on the oil whose support Carter needed. On average, the policy cut the oil imports and lowered the chances of the oil shortage but was not thoroughly thought-out in order to satisfy the expectations of his supporters.

Although Carter considered the energy policy his major success, this strategy required a sort of “national sacrifice and cooperation” the whole society would unlikely undergo (Link S.A. and Link W. A. 642). Instead this provocative policy, well-meant but demanding, created him many enemies in the general public, Congress, national industries as well as leading American car companies.  He was presumably more eager to follow “ten fundamental principles” to conserve energy himself than the rest of the population and truly lacked the skills to persuade others to be enthusiastic about it, too ("President Carter's Address to the Nation on Proposed National Energy Policy.").

The pursuit of Carter’s foreign policy with the Human Rights abide as its centrepiece was no more consistent than his domestic policy. Seeking a fully developed doctrine would be meaningless as it constituted a vague mixture of open diplomacy and policy of accommodation with his moral beliefs and attitude as the concept missing in the foreign policies of the previous presidencies (Link S.A. and Link W.A. 647).

However, his adherence to the Human Rights may sometimes seem to be overrated when examining his approach to foreign leaders. Most of them were ironically de facto dictators violating the Human Rights, with whom Carter tended to establish controversial friendly-like relationships. In the field of international politics not only did Carter lack experience, but also prudence and ingenuity, which prevented him to foresee the upcoming events such as the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan or the Iranian revolution. Thus, he is justifiably thought to be one of the worst presidents ever and hold responsible for “the turmoil we see in the world today” ("Jimmy Carter Can Only Blame Himself.").

One of the first challenges of Carter’s presidency was the transfer of control of the American-built Panama Canal to the government of Panama. On the one hand, it may be obvious that Carter showed his respect for the state sovereignty of Panama and its right to control the canal as a part of its territory. On the other hand, he seemed to have ignored the fact that the Panama government was not exactly democratic neither its leader General Torrijos was ever officially elected. Some years later Carter’s influence over Torrijos was evaluated as generally positive because Panama proceeded to new social reforms but at the time of the treaty signing the question about Carter’s overly trust and naivety was raised.

Furthermore, Carter did not seem to have fully assessed the importance of the Panama Canal for his own country as one of the most strategic assets it possessed. Therefore, this action triggered criticism among the public as well as in the Senate where the first treaty proposal did not get a majority vote. As a result, Carter was forced to accept new terms of the treaty declaring neutrality of the canal but not a complete control handover. Though Carter had the treaty passed, his negotiating skills were questioned undermining his authority. He was perceived as weak and willing to give away the Panama Canal, a step the Republicans would not have gone ahead with ("Jimmy Carter: Foreign Affairs.").

Nothing damaged Carter’s image as much as the controversial Iran-American relations that not only determined a definite fall of his presidency but also the upcoming decades of tensions between the two countries. His benevolence towards the Iranian leader Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi could not be more demonstrated than calling him the “island of stability” in the Middle East right at the beginning of his term on the visit to Iran in 1977 (qtd. in "Jimmy Carter Can Only Blame Himself.").  Not having considered the impacts of his statements and actions once again Jimmy Carter was asking for the trouble for a number of reasons.

First, Shah Reza Pahlavi was undoubtedly regarded as a progressive leader but also the autocratic one keeping his opposition as political prisoners ("History of Iran - Pahlavi Dynasty."). The relations with the West during his reign were probably the best in the history of Iran as 80 per cent of oil was controlled by the United States and Britain. Even Carter’s visit to Iran confirms a sort of American support making the Shah look like a “Western puppet” to the Iranians ("Jimmy Carter: Foreign Affairs."). Therefore, it should not be shocking the Iranian population gradually developed a hostile attitude towards America with the president “meddling into Iran Affairs”, whose promotion of the Human Rights was ambiguous ("Jimmy Carter Can Only Blame Himself.").

Second, it became known that the C.I.A. paid over 4 million dollars in bribes to the religious Mullahs to “tone down their anti-Shah and anti-Western rhetoric” ("Jimmy Carter's Human Rights Disaster in Iran."). As the Mullahs breached the agreement, Carter decided to stop the financial aid, thus, giving the incentives to start the revolution. Moreover, long ongoing protests against the Shah were clear signals of a potential regime overthrow the Carter administration must have foreseen, therefore, it was expected to intervene. However, Carter did not encourage the Shah to “brutally suppress the revolution” as recommended by his National Security Advisor, which showed his indecisiveness whether to support or abandon the Shah in this very delicate situation, a change of plan that cost him and the Iranians very much ("Jimmy Carter's Human Rights Disaster in Iran.").

Third, granting asylum to the overthrown Shah who was to be tried in the court for political crimes in Iran represented the major mistake in the Iran-American relations. But Jimmy Carter was a kind-hearted man and the old Shah needed cancer treatment. It was a socially-acceptable charitable act but not necessarily diplomatically correct. It obviously angered the Islamist student group under a new leader Ayatollah Khomeini, which resulted in the occupation of American embassy in Tehran known as the Hostage Crisis. It was Carter’s incompetence to predict the consequences and pursue the right measures to warn American citizens in Iran, of which 52 were taken hostage for 444 following days. Despite it was widely known that the Shah was to be executed and the Islamist group was getting even more aggressive, Carter chose to risk.

Finally and most importantly, Carter’s reaction to the crisis and subsequent negotiations may be perceived as a complete failure. First of all, his immediate reaction was to cut Iranian oil imports and freeze Iranian assets in American banks before any other diplomatic solution crossed his mind. Moreover, the hostages were kept captive since November 1979 while the first secret rescue attempt came in April 1980, which was anyway in the last second aborted by President Carter and unfortunately resulted in the crash of two planes and the deaths of 6 American servicemen. Thus, Carter had a lot to explain to the public who was already intimidated by his inaction and incapacity to terminate the crisis earlier.

But Carter’s negotiating skills proved indeed poor. He was willing to comply with the demands of the Iranians at any cost but at the moment of drawing the agreement their proposals were always withdrawn as though they were teasing and mocking Carter, which challenged the superior role of American President who was not given a choice to negotiate but accept the decision. Additionally, the extensive media coverage that showed the Iranian mobs burning American flag and wishing the death to America did not help Carter’s image neither did yellow ribbons in the streets and counting days of victims being hold ("Jimmy Carter: Foreign Affairs."). President Carter’s abilities to resolve the crisis must have been pictured as rather deceptive.

Having expected the Iranian revolution at some point, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 were quite unanticipated and complicated the whole international situation even more. Although both occurred independently, there might be a hint to blame Jimmy Carter for his irresponsible foreign policy.

The signing of SALT II with Brezhnev triggered criticism from the Republicans who claimed the treaty “encouraged the Soviet adventurism around the globe” but Carter seemed to have relaxed his suspicion towards Brezhnev (Link S.A. and Link W.A. 646). His overly trust, thus, may have been the reason he did not spot the Soviet interests in Afghanistan much earlier. On the other hand, Saddam Hussein took advantage of Iranian instability to proceed with the Iraq invasion of Iran, known as the Gulf War. Later after Carter’s presidency it became transparent that American abandonment of the Iranian Shah was an initial stage before turning their back to Iran completely taking the side of Iraq in the Gulf War.

Beside international fiascos committed, Carter must be genuinely given credit for the Camp David Accords bringing Egyptian and Israeli leaders to sign the most significant peace treaty of the Arab-Israeli conflict of the 20th century. Though America was involved as a mediator, it was considered a major success for Carter’s fight for the Human Rights. What is more, Carter was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. The accomplishments are generally associated with the post-presidency years rather than the years in office.  Whether those brighter moments surpassed the trouble caused remains disputable.

To sum up, it is obvious that the Carter administration was no more controversial that the previous administrations of the 70’s. Though the definition and intentions of his foreign and domestic policies were morally appreciated, the enforcement and implementation proved not to be as easy as stated in his program. He happened to be a soft negotiator that did not establish a supreme authority and respect embarrassing American position as a superpower in the international politics.  Furthermore, his indecisiveness caused the chaos and confusion that impeded a complex resolution of the problems seen in the Iranian rescue mission. In other words Jimmy Carter knew how to lecture and address the nation, but not how to successfully lead the nation.


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Poláková, Natália. American Presidency: Recalling the Failures of Jimmy Carter [online]., 26. září 2016. [cit. 2024-05-19]. Dostupné z WWW: <>. ISSN 1801-1438.

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