Monday, April 20, 2009

From Colony to Superpower, Part XVIII

This is the eighteenth installment in the 20 part series Rob Farley and I have commenced to review George Herring's From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. See the Herring Review tag below for previous entries. Rob's discussion for the week is here.

This week, Herring discusses the Ford and Carter years. Not the greatest period in American history to be sure. Ford had to deal with the problems created by Nixon while Carter's efforts were undermined by the rise of conservatism that led to Reagan's election in 1980.

Ford comes across pretty good here. He started the process of bringing draft evaders home, he continued working toward detente with the Soviets and had a good personal relationship with Brezhnev, he wisely chose to let the South Vietnamese government fall without another U.S. intervention, and he acted decisively in the Mayaguez incident, when the Cambodian government took a U.S. ship and held its crew as hostages.

On the other hand, Ford faced an angry Congress. Conservatives were angry over Vietnam and despised detente. They wanted a tough foreign policy. Ford worried about a primary challenge from Reagan in 1976. The left was upset that Ford didn't do enough on human rights or reducing nuclear arsenals.

Meanwhile, there was Scoop Jackson, the good senator from Boeing. Jackson, a hero to neoconservatives, wanted to ride a wave of anti-Soviet feeling into the White House in 1976. Although a Democrat, he was as hawkish as one could be. He was also a captive of hard-line pro-Israel forces and pushed a pretty racist program for the Middle East. No one in this chapter comes across as more contemptible than Jackson, who would happily oppose a principle he once espoused if it would further his ambitions. Ford faced other challenges from Congress as well. Angry about executive abuses of power after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the secrecy of the Nixon years, Congress looked to reassert itself. Sometimes this was good, such as when Congress stopped Nixon and Kissinger from supporting a covert operation to undermine socialism in Angola. However, the ability of people like Jackson to demagogue foreign policy for their own personal gain certainly shows the downside of Congressional leadership on these issues. Rob also talks about Jackson in great detail.

Oddly, Herring doesn't mention the biggest black mark on the Ford years--East Timor. Ford and Kissinger acquiesced in Indonesia invading the newly freed nation of East Timor and subjecting its residents to terrible horrors. In fact, Indonesia is barely mentioned at all in the book. Given its important strategic location, that it is the largest Muslim country in the world, and its sordid and tangled post-war history with the United States, this is quite surprising.

Carter comes across a bit worse than Ford. To some extent, Herring's criticisms are true--Carter had no foreign policy experience and was very bad at selling tough foreign policy decisions to the American people. On the other hand, Carter also faced some very difficult situations--not only a low opinion of America throughout the world, but the rise of Reagan and conservatism, and the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Carter could have put together a more cohesive foreign policy team to be sure--Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski couldn't stand each other and this led to infighting throughout Carter's term.

Carter did some really good things. Naming Andrew Young as UN ambassador went a long way toward improving US-African relations. Carter continued trying to salvage detente in his early years in office. He rightly gave the Panama Canal back to Panama. His historic negotiations in the Middle East led to Egypt recognizing Israel's right to exist for the first time. He stood up, in the face of conservative opposition in Congress, to the white supremacists ruling Rhodesia and South Africa. He normalized relations with China, building upon Nixon's actions there, to help isolate the Soviet Union.

Looking at Panama, we can see the struggles Carter faced, not in spite of, but because of his accomplishments. The Canal clearly needed to go back to Panama. We stole the land from the nation in 1903 when we hewed it off of Colombia for our purposes. This split the new nation in two, causing consternation and anti-American feeling for decades. By the 1970s, large-scale protests against the United States were taking place in Panama. Controlling the Canal outright was more trouble than it was worth. But for conservatives, it was another example of the U.S. caving to the Third World and Carter was accused of betraying American foreign policy interests. Reagan used this issue as one where he differed from Carter and tapped into much resentment in the country over Panama in his election campaign. The more I read about Carter and America in the late 70s, the more respect I gain for Carter and the more I think he was simply facing a nation sick of anything resembling postwar liberalism. Complaints about Carter's weak leadership and ineffectiveness should properly be interpreted through this framework.

Of course, Carter's great failure was in Iran. Like every president since Eisenhower, Carter supported the Shah. By the mid 70s, it was clear that the Shah's regime was in shambles, but the U.S. didn't know what to do. When the Islamic Revolution succeeded, and especially when dozens of Americans were taken hostage in late 1979, Carter looked weak. Desperate by now to stop the rise of Reagan, Carter eventually decided to look tough. Without even consulting Secretary of State Vance, he ordered an air rescue operation. It completely failed when the planes were spotted, when a sandstorm forced them to turn back, and when a midair collision killed 8 US troops who had to be left behind. Vance resigned on principle. Carter looked weaker than ever and Reagan blew him away in the 1980 elections.

There's a whole lot more to say about these years, including about Afghanistan, Israel's failure to live up to the Camp David agreements, and Carter's relationship with the South American dictatorships, but I'll send it back to Rob for more on that.