Here we go again with more of the right-wing’s Jimmy Carter bashing. Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is still comparing Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter, as he did when he was the 2012 vice-presidential nominee of the Fox-Republican-TEA Party. Mr. Ryan is well known for his opposition to Social Security and Medicare and for his advocacy of Ayn Rand’s greed is good, survival of the fittest, laissez-faire economic philosophy. His own “road map” to economic prosperity strongly favored inherited wealth. He also recently used the racist philosophy of Charles Murray to explain poverty in the inner cities. While Mr. Ryan and his party have done everything imaginable to prevent an end to the Great Jobs Depression before Mr. Obama leaves office, the least he can do is leave Jimmy Carter out of it.
Mr. Ryan, probably correctly, presumes that most voters don’t know anything about President Carter except what his party has been telling them for the past thirty years. Mr. Carter is remembered for two specific crises: (1). the inflation caused by OPEC’s oil prices and shortages, and (2) the takeover of our embassy in Tehran by Iranian students. Therefore, we are supposed to accept him as the worst President ever. But his presidency and legacy were much more than that.
Mr. Carter was responsible for the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties that paved the way for the Panamanians to regain ownership of the Panama Canal Zone that divided their country. More importantly for us, it helped improve our relations in the international community, especially in Latin America.
In 1903 a Frenchman named Philippe Bunau-Varilla represented Panama in Washington. He signed the treaty that turned the Canal Zone over to the USA in perpetuity! Our secretary of state, John Hay, reputedly told him that the Panamanians would punch him in the mouth if they knew what he was doing to them. Bunau-Varilla was pretty sure they would do much worse, so he never returned to Panama.
From the canal’s opening in 1914 until Carter’s treaty, our ownership of the Canal Zone fueled our reputation as an imperialistic power. Although our returning the Canal Zone to the Panamanians was morally just, it was amazingly controversial in the United States. There was great emotional opposition from people like the ambitious governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who insisted that “We built it. We paid for it. It’s ours, and we are going to keep it.” California’s Republican Senator S. I. Hayakawa observed, “We stole it fair and square.”
It took great personal and political courage for Carter to do the right thing. You could say the same thing for the senators who voted to ratify the treaty with only one vote to spare.
Mr. Carter should have won the Nobel Prize for Peace at the same time that Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt were awarded the Prize. The 1978 Camp David Accords led to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel the following year. Begin and Sadat admitted that it would never have occurred without Jimmy Carter. Considering their knee-jerk defense of Israel, you would think that even the members of the current Fox-Republican-TEA Party could agree with that.
Also, Mr. Carter was responsible for the peaceful resolution of the Iranian hostage crisis. Fifty-two Americans were held captive in Iran from November 1979 until the day Carter left office on Jan. 20, 1981.
President Carter froze Iran’s assets in the U.S., and Iran began to seriously hurt for replacement parts. Nevertheless, the Iranians surprisingly cut off negotiations for the hostages in October 1980 and didn’t reopen them until after Carter was defeated in the November election. (This may not be so surprising. There are strong indications that the Reagan campaign secretly interfered with the negotiations to prevent Carter from bringing home the hostages before Election Day.
Only hours before Carter left office, Iran agreed to release the 52 hostages. A lesser president would have done what was more politically popular and bombed or invaded Iran and eventually brought the hostages home in body bags.
Mr. Carter also understood that the U.S. had to wean itself from Middle Eastern oil and to pursue sources of renewable energy. He even set a modest example by installing a solar panel on the roof of the White House. In contrast, Mr. Reagan shamelessly had the solar panel removed! Reagan’s continuing legacy is his successful restoration of the Gilded Age of the late 19th century: the return of plutocratic rule (by and for the rich) and the acceptance that greed, waste, and pollution are necessary.
In 2002 Jimmy Carter finally received the Nobel Peace Prize “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.” It is routinely said that Carter has been our greatest ex-president.
President Barack Obama was given the Prize primarily because he wasn’t George W. Bush. Since then, he’s often been disappointing: he failed to prosecute American promoters of torture, hasn’t closed Guantanamo’s prison, has increased spying by the NSA, has escalated drone strikes, and has a “kill list.” Mr. Obama, in his fiscal 2015 budget, asked for more money than even Reagan wasted on nuclear weapons maintenance, design, and production! Mr. Carter, on the other hand, actually should have received the Peace Prize while he was President of the United States.
By David Offutt
A version of this essay was published March 26, 2014, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.