The Blog

Double-Duped Carter: From Soviet Communism to Radical Islam

A look at the record and the diary.

6:00 AM, Oct 4, 2010 • By PAUL KENGOR
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

It was June 18, 1979, at the signing of the SALT II Treaty in Vienna. Carter leaned over and planted a kiss on the cheek of Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev. That visual is a most instructive metaphor. In the Cold War, it was the difference between winning and losing.

As this photo graces the cover of my book, you can imagine I wasted little time seeing how Carter recalled it in his diary. Here again, there were no regrets—quite the contrary. On page 331, Carter writes: “The signing ceremony was very impressive and well conducted. When we finished signing the documents and handed them to one another, I shook hands with Brezhnev warmly, and, to my surprise, he leaned forward and put his cheek against mine for an intimate embrace. We were both somewhat emotional.”

It was a moment of intimacy Carter still seems to embrace.

Here is one more example from the Soviet side, which concerns Afghanistan, and shifts the battle toward the contemporary Middle East. It was late December 1979, and the Red Army had just stormed into Afghanistan, the first Soviet invasion of a nation outside the Warsaw Pact since World War II. “My opinion of the Russians has changed most dramatically in the last week,” Carter told ABC’s Frank Reynolds. “[T]his action of the Soviets has made a more dramatic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.”

Those shocking words were streamed across front pages worldwide. Among those reading them was Ronald Reagan, who did his best to keep his disbelief and disappointment to himself, saying privately (in a letter) that Carter’s assessment “would be laughable, I think, if it were not so tragic.” Said Reagan: “It is frightening to hear a man in the office of the presidency who has just discovered that the Soviets can’t be trusted, that they’ve lied to him.”

Indeed it was. So, here was another example I checked in the diary. Surely, Carter lamented this one?

“I had a one-hour interview with Frank Reynolds of ABC,” recorded Carter, adding his reaction and that of Press Secretary Jody Powell: “Jody thought the interview was great, and I think it was a very good one.”

Of course, the rest is history. As Carter was resoundingly defeated for re-election 11 months later, losing 44 states to Reagan, the Soviets commenced a systematic destruction of Afghanistan. In the process, Brezhnev and pals drew to Afghanistan the likes of Osama bin Laden, and sowed the bitter seeds that made possible the emergence of the Taliban. It paved the way for September 11, 2001, and the modern War on Terror.

The headquarters of radical Islamic terror is Iran. Under President Carter, Iran dramatically shifted from being America’s most reliable Middle East ally (along with Israel) under the Shah, to, instead, a repressive theocratic sponsor of Islamic terror. It began in February 1979, the third year of the Carter presidency, with the takeover by the Ayatollah.

That, too, hadn’t started that way: On December 31, 1977, President Carter stood aside the Shah, raised his glass and gave a toast: “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.”

Given what soon transpired, that quote became infamous.

Well, I’m pleased to report that, here at least, the former president has issued a mea culpa. Listing the exact quote in his diary, Carter noted: “Understandably, this was derided when the shah was overthrown thirteen months later.”

Yes, understandably. That “island of stability” erupted into a volcano, prompting an even more infamous response from President Carter. On December 7, 1978, a reporter asked the president if he thought the Shah “could survive” the present crisis. Carter waffled:

I don’t know. I hope so. This is something that is in the hands of the people of Iran. We have never had any intention and don’t have any intention of trying to intercede in the internal political affairs of Iran…. We personally prefer that the Shah maintain a major role in the government, but that’s a decision for the Iranian people to make.

To say this was a sea change in American policy is insufficient. Carter casually delivered a jaw-dropper. And no one was as surprised as the Iranian extremists, who properly read Carter’s words as a sign that Uncle Sam would not, this time around, save the Shah. It was a fatal vote of no confidence. The situation was an Iranian internal affair. America should not meddle. It was party time for the Shiite revolution.

Recent Blog Posts