By Bill Mefford
One of my (many) pet peeves are false equivalencies. It drove me crazy during the 2016 presidential campaign when people had the audacity to compare donald trump with Hillary Clinton, trying to say they were “similar evils.” UGH. I knew then that was utterly baseless and I love to remind people, “he you remember when you said trump is no worse than Hillary? Yeah, how’s that working out post-Mueller report?”
I am Captain I-Told-You-So these days.
But I recently read an old book detailing the foreign policies of President Jimmy Carter during his administration. Full disclosure: I am a Jimmy Carter fan. The first campaign I worked on was his in 1976, walking around with my mom handing out bumper stickers and campaign literature in grocery story parking lots and via door-to-door canvassing. I also believe that no person is perfect (save one) and President Carter’s administration was certainly not mistake-free - far from it. But neither was it as bad as far too many pseudo-historians claim. President Carter accomplished a number of his goals and he has left a lasting legacy in so many ways.
So, as I was reading the book, Working in the World by Robert A. Strong, I could not help but remember President Carter’s administration against the backdrop of our current nightmare. Finally, a comparison that truly deserves merit. And though President Carter’s grandest foreign policy accomplishment was the Egyptian/Israeli peace accord (still in place), I want to look specifically at what he did in regards to Iran.
Perhaps the most memorable foreign policy issue President Carter dealt with regarding Iran during his time in office was the Iranian hostage crisis, which lasted 444 days. It only came to an end on the last day of his presidency, during which he worked tirelessly to free the hostages, all of whom returned to the US unharmed. But before the hostage crisis ever happened, President Carter sounded what became a familiar theme to the Shah of Iran who was later run out of the country by the Khomeni. The Shah had been put into power in 1953 by the CIA who had decided that Iran’s democratically-elected leader, Mossadegh, because he was not as friendly to business interests as was the Shah. In so many ways, President Carter’s efforts were doomed from the beginning because of this devastating history.
The CIA-orchestrated coup from 25 years earlier was often referred to by the hostage-takers for their actions. So, even as events were happening in 1977 and 1978 which were signaling the end of the Shah’s reign, President Carter - in the security of private conversation - urged the Shah to stop the use of indefinite detention and torture of his political rivals, and to respect the human rights of all of people in Iran. Indeed, President Carter’s most lasting legacy on foreign policy, and perhaps of his entire presidency, was his implementation of lifting human rights to the level of State Department policy. President Ford had talked often about the need for human rights, but it was President Carter who made human rights a major policy program of his administration. No administration has so emphasized human rights before or since. And most certainly not this one as trump has never even said the words “human rights” that I can remember.
President Carter’s emphasis on human rights was not undertaken as a means of humiliation of the Shah, for the President talked to him in private and he gave economic and international prestige reasons for his need of adopting human rights. President Carter rightly understood that foreign relations is innately relational - it’s even in the name!
And when President Carter brought up the issue of human rights in public he did so in an amazingly subtle, but powerfully persuasive way. What happened was that in 1978 President Carter stopped in Iran for one night on a swing through the Middle East and into Europe. The Shah threw him a state dinner and President Carter, in his remarks, quoted a Persian wisdom saying to highlight how protecting human rights was contextual to Persian culture. Thus, the Shah and all those at the dinner had to consider the implications of human rights not because it was located in the speech of a leader from a superpower, but because it was located in their own culture’s wisdom.
Now, which do you think is more persuasive - bullying and intimidation or contextualization? On an individual level, try convincing someone of something you believe in by yelling at them for the whole world to watch. See how they respond. You may get your way so it might seem to work, but it most certainly not transformative and it is not relationally formational.
I think we can safely compare President Carter’s contextualization of the need for human rights with donald trump’s insistence that national greatness comes through humiliation, coercion, and outright bullying. Heck, we can place President Carter’s focus on human rights and his seeking after human rights through cultural contextualization against President George W. Bush’s deadly and devastating attempt to “bring democracy to the Middle East” through regime change.
I cannot help but wonder if President Eisenhower had used President Carter’s attempt at reasoning and contextualization in his foreign policy towards Iran when he elected to violently overthrow Iran’s leader in 1953. Would the taking of hostages ever have happened? No, probably not. Would we view Iran with such hostility now? Definitely not.
President Carter, in this one small and virtually unheard of event, gives us a blueprint for making foreign relations genuinely relational. And if the presidents who both preceded and followed him had adopted that same approach we would certainly have a different and much more peaceful world.