Carter's Winning Presidency
By Zbigniew Brzezinski and Stuart E. Eizenstat
Washington Post Op Ed - Tuesday, October 22, 2002; Page A27
The long-delayed and much deserved Nobel Peace Prize for Jimmy Carter is the right occasion to review his presidency. It is often said that second-term presidents -- no longer concerned about reelection -- tend to be bolder and more innovative. Carter acted from the start as if he was a second-term president, tackling issues where other presidents had feared to tread while remaining indifferent to the political calculus.
Conviction, not expediency, and principle, not politics, defined his presidency. The result -- his eventual electoral defeat notwithstanding -- was a string of accomplishments with long-term effects from which we still benefit today. Carter's staff used to joke ruefully that the worst way to influence a decision was to argue that it would help him politically. But this freed him to act boldly, even though it might be politically unwise.
He was the first U.S. president to state unambiguously that the Palestinians deserved "a homeland" in a peace treaty that would ensure Israel's security. Together with his emphasis on halting settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, this assertion created a political firestorm, and it took more than a decade before another president dared to say that a Palestinian state should be part of a peace settlement. But Carter did not stop with words. He showed at Camp David that only with direct presidential involvement can peace be achieved in the Middle East, pressing both Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat into compromises that made an Israeli-Egyptian peace possible.
Carter was manifestly impatient with historical anomalies that had outlived their day. He rammed through the Panama Canal Treaty, even though conservative Republicans accused him of a giveaway. Yet without that treaty the canal today would be far less secure and our relations with Latin America far less positive. He also insisted on normalizing relations with China and on conducting the negotiations directly from the White House in order to insulate the process from lobbying. Twenty years later, U.S.-Chinese relations are a major element of stability in the Far East, while -- contrary to naysayers' predictions -- Taiwan is even more secure.
Initially many people scoffed at two major breaks Carter made with the past in U.S.-Soviet relations. The first involved his emphasis on human rights. Some thought it a case of naive idealism or misguided meddling in the affairs of other states. Yet by raising high the standard of human rights, he put the Soviet Union on the ideological defensive. His human rights initiative emboldened dissident movements, such as Solidarity in Poland, which eventually undermined the Soviet bloc. By extending his human rights campaign to the military dictatorships of Latin America, he led the way to democracy there.
Carter's views on defense matters were just as politically controversial. He concluded, years ahead of others, that the U.S. and Soviet arsenals were irrationally large. Although he settled for limited reductions in the SALT II agreement, and was taken to task for publicly advocating deep cuts, the latter is now accepted as common sense and has formed the basis for both the Reagan and recent Bush arms controls agreements. But at the same time, he reversed the post-Vietnam decline in defense spending in order to modernize U.S. weaponry and develop rapid-reaction forces.
He was equally decisive and politically fearless in his domestic agenda. He removed price controls on natural gas and oil and developed an energy plan that encouraged conservation and production of both traditional fossil fuels and new alternatives. By taking on the auto industry and getting Congress to require a fleet-wide fuel-efficiency average of 27.5 miles per gallon by 1985, he made the nation much more energy-efficient. No president since has been willing to follow his lead, and as a result our dependence on Middle East oil remains.
At the same time, he was the boldest environmental president since Theodore Roosevelt, expanding the endangered species list, protecting wetlands and opposing wasteful water projects. Most significant, he added more land to the national park system than any president other than Roosevelt.
He made transportation deregulation a top priority, over the fierce objection of industry and labor. Airline deregulation opened up airline travel to the American middle class.
Perhaps Carter's most important domestic legacy was the flip side of his human rights campaign abroad: the advancement of civil rights for African Americans. When faced with tough civil rights decisions that threatened his southern base, he unfailingly sided with African Americans, supporting affirmative action in the Bakke case that has been preserved to this day.
His governing strategy of ignoring politics might have gained him a second term with some luck. But he had none. The combination of the Iranian hostage crisis and hyper- inflation left him devoid of political support and opened the door to the divisive Democratic Party challenge of Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Yet even in political danger, he chose one last time to stand on principle. Over the objections of many of his advisers, he selected Paul Volcker to head the Federal Reserve and unflinchingly backed the tough monetary medicine he knew he would apply. The double-digit interest rates that followed sealed his defeat at the polls but led to the economic recovery during the Reagan years.
The Nobel Prize rewards a lifetime of good deeds that include, in our admittedly partial view, Jimmy Carter's four short but important years as the 39th president.
Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser and Stuart E. Eizenstat domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter.