Virtual Roundtable: Was Jimmy Carter a Successful Foreign Policy President?

Thursday, July 22, 2021
Marion S. Trikosko/Reuters
Kai Bird

Journalist and Author of The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter


Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Four decades after he left power, Jimmy Carter’s presidency is being reevaluated by historians. The passage of time and availability of documentary evidence makes such a reassessment possible. Is the popular impression of Carter as a president who could not grasp international realities fair? Kai Bird, author and recent biographer of Jimmy Carter, explores whether Carter was an underrated foreign policy president.


TAKEYH: Thanks very much. This event is on the record. And so everything you say will be recorded for posterity.

Did we understand him too quickly? Was Jimmy Carter one of our more improbable presidents, but was he effective, even successful? To sort all this out, we have Kai Bird, his most recent biographer. For the past four decades, Kai Bird has chronicled many of America’s crises or crusades, usually through the prism of more interesting personality. It all started out with John McCloy and something called The Establishment (sic; The Chairman). Then the Bundy brothers tragedy, Robert Oppenheimer’s anguish—for which Kai received a Pulitzer Prize. Bob Ames and America’s secrets. And now, Jimmy Carter and his triumphs—question mark. (Laughs.)

To say the least, it’s been a good year for Jimmy Carter. He has had two massive and sympathetic biographies. Before Jonathan Alter and Kai Bird, the only person that wrote about Jimmy Carter was Jimmy Carter. Not so much and not no more. Today we focus on Carter’s foreign policy and whether it was successful foreign policy presidency, and whether in the context of the Cold War he was an outlier, as Kai insists on his description. Without any further delay, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Kai Bird.

Kai, the floor, as they say, is yours—the virtual floor.

BIRD: Well, thank you, Ray, for having me at this lovely event. Yeah, let me say very briefly—give a sort of summary of how I came to this project, and the themes that I arrived at in the book. You know, when I was a young man in my twenties, as a working journalist in the ’70s, I thought Jimmy Carter was not liberal enough. And, you know, I was rather sympathetic to Ted Kennedy’s challenge for the nomination in 1980.

But I was always curious about Carter because he, obviously, was an outlier. A very improbable president. He was certainly a decent man, probably the most decent man to have occupied the White House in the last century. And certainly one of the most intelligent and hardworking, particularly in the light of the record of our last president. He was a very hardworking president. (Laughs.)

And in 1990, I actually explored the notion of doing a biography of Carter. Did a magazine profile of what he was doing with his ex-presidency. But I backed off. I thought it was too early. His archives were still closed. And I didn’t understand the South. I made a visit down to Georgia and I realized it was a foreign country. (Laughs.) I didn’t understand race, or Southern Baptists, and his religiosity. And it just seemed too early. So I backed off and went on to do the Bundy brothers, and then Oppenheimer and, as you said, Robert Ames.

But I came back to Carter in 2015 precisely because he is so relevant to our times. You know, the issues that he was grappling with—energy, race, religion, climate change, health care—you know, all—we’re still grappling with those things. We’re still living with the revolution in Iran. We’re still grappling with the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum that he dealt with. And once I got into the archives and dug into Carter’s president—my book is a full biography, you know, birth to present times, but it’s heavily weighted to the White House years.

And any reader will see that the portrait I give of his White House years is not uncritical. He made a lot of mistakes. But it’s—I’m very sympathetic to his hard work, his decency, his idealism. And you know, it’s astonishing how much he achieved. On the domestic agenda, he got Americans seatbelts and airbags, saving ten thousand lives a year. He deregulated the airline industry so that middle-class Americans could fly for the first time.

He deregulated the trucking industry, and natural gas, and jumpstarted the boutique beer industry so Americans could drink good beer in every American city—(laughs)—rather than Budweiser. You know, he passed the Alaska Land Act, he appointed more African Americans and Latinos to the federal bench than all his presidencies before. He vastly opened up the food stamp program, adding three million people to give access to food stamps, largely poor Blacks in the south.

And then on the foreign policy agenda, he passed the Panama Canal Treaty, he negotiated the SALT II arms control agreement, he normalized relations with China, he passed immigration reform, and he made human rights a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy—a principle that none of his successors have been able to walk away from. You know, and then very specifically on his foreign policy agenda, he, of course, negotiated the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, taking Egypt off the battlefield for Israel. He did all of these foreign policy achievements, and in retrospect they look pretty good compared to Ronald Reagan, compared to Clinton, Bush. All of them have, I think, lesser and less lengthy achievements.

But he is, nevertheless, regarded as a great ex-president and a failed presidency. And I think the answer for why that is the case, why there’s that perception, is simply that he was a victim of historical events. The Iran Revolution in particular, the Israeli Likud right-wing backlash against the Camp David Accords, his—you know, he was a victim of economic circumstances, in particular inflation, stagflation, the energy crises, where Americans were suddenly having to pay, God forbid, a dollar a gallon for gasoline. But in retrospect, I think most people reading my book will come away with a more favorable impression of Jimmy Carter, both on the domestic ledger but also in terms of foreign policy.

TAKEYH: Thanks. I’ve been told for people to turn on their Zoom cameras so we can create a virtual intimacy. (Laughs.) Before I begin the questions, I want to acknowledge Jonathan Alter who’s with us, also a carter biographer of consequence and importance.

I want to ask you, Kai, and open it up for questions from others, but I want to begin by asking you the following: The issue of human rights, which you said Carter put in a front burner of his presidency, and in a recent interview on NewsHour, he also said that—he also said that he credited human rights as something that he pioneered. But is that really true? Carter, during the campaign, does not really talk about human rights until October. The decision, I believe, to talk about the human rights was a way of criticizing Jerry Ford without denouncing détente. So it was a political ploy, maybe contrived by Ham Jordon.

During his presidency, human rights did not affect his relationship with China. It did not affect his relationship with the Soviet Union. After the Sakharov letter it’s not really part of the SALT discussions. And in my opinion, it did not affect his approach toward Iran. So is human rights a post-presidential concoction to justify what is perceived to be a failed presidency? Is this something that they just came up with in the intervening forty years to justify those four years?

BIRD: Well, no. (Laughter.) And I would argue, in rebuttal, that you just have to look at his appointment of Patt Derian as assistant secretary of state for human rights, elevating this position to an assistant secretary level. And she was a thorn in the ass of all the State Department leading bureaucrats, from the secretary, to the deputy secretary, to Brzezinski. And yet, Carter stood by her and refused to let her be moved out. And she got her way on many issues. She argued with him about human rights in Iran. She argued—and she was most successful, of course, in Latin America, where she went down and lectured the Argentine generals, the Brazilian generals. And, you know, by the time Carter left the White House, Latin America was beginning to move from a military culture of dictatorship to real democracies with elections, which was true also, by the way, in Nicaragua.

And I would argue that in retrospect, with regard to the Soviet Union, you know, Carter was serious about human rights. It wasn’t just a campaign gimmick. There’s a continuity between his presidency and his ex-presidency. He does believe fervently in human rights. And he started it in during his presidency. But you’re right, he, you know, pushed—it was an administration. He had a Cabinet. He had pushback and there were factions in his administration and inside the White House. And some of his closest aides, namely Zbig Brzezinski, did not really believe in human rights, except as when it could be used as a thorn in the side of the Russians. Nevertheless, it was a serious principle that he tried to pursue.

TAKEYH: If anybody has a question, have your raise icon and then we’ll call on you.

Mr. Nimetz, please.

Q: I was in the State Department in those days and worked a lot on the Eastern European Warsaw Pact issues. And there, human rights was very important. Now, it’s true that Brzezinski viewed it as a thorn in the Soviet side, but he didn’t only think that way. I was there. He cared about human rights. But he also cared about, you know, dealing with the Soviets strategically. But we did a lot in connection with the Helsinki Final Act, the review, the Charter 77 people in Czechoslovakia. And so a lot was done in Eastern Europe. A lot was done on Latin America substantively, which had a real effect.

And then there were nuances. The arms sales—I was the undersecretary in charge of arms sales for at least the last year of the Carter administration. And every arms sale was looked at in those terms. And there were nuanced types of decisions with different countries. So I think that—I’d like to hear from Kai. He knows more about it than I do, even though I was there. (Laughs.) But at this stage. I think the record is pretty good, even though it was nuanced and selective.

TAKEYH: And before I go to Jonathan, because I do want to address this issue as well, the question that I have—and I don’t want to belabor this—Patt Derian is a procedural appointment. You know, there’s no—you know, on issues of (Iran ?). But I want to ask Kai a question. And as I said, I don’t want to belabor this. Because the issue of Zbig Brzezinski looms large here. In the pantheon of gods and devils, he’s not one of the gods in this particular book. And you and I have spoken about this before.

And I will say, Carter—the three questions that I ask: Is Carter is charge of his presidency? Yes. Is Carter detail oriented? Yes. Was Zbig Brzezinski a rogue actor? No. Therefore, are you blaming the stuff that Carter did that you don’t like on Zbig Brzezinski and the stuff you like on Jimmy Carter? Because the stuff that you don’t like about Brzezinski could not have happened without Carter’s consent. So tell me how you see this dichotomy, as you indicate it? And then we have a whole list of more distinguished people than me who want to talk. And, Jonathan, please, I’ll be with you next.


BIRD: Well, Ray, that’s a great question. And it goes to the heart of my book. And you’re right to pick up on it. And yes, of course, ultimately Jimmy Carter is the president, so he’s responsible for the decisions and responsible for the appointments he makes of the men and women around him. But what interested me was having a narrative that took into account the give and take, the arguments inside the administration, and particularly in the White House. And as I did my research plowing through the archives in the presidential library in Atlanta, it became, you know, just amazing how often Brzezinski and Carter disagreed.

And, you know, Carter told him in his interviews—he’s said this to other people, I’m sure to Jonathan Alter as well—that Brzezinski entertained him every day. He was the kind of guy who had a hundred great ideas, and Carter would have to reject, you know, ninety-nine of them every day. And, you know, at one point in one of my interviews with Brzezinski himself, he told this story. He says, you know, Jimmy and I had a terrible argument one day in the Oval Office. And I stormed out, went back to my office. And a few minutes later, in came Susan Clough, and rather ostentatiously offered me a green envelop, signifying that this was a handwritten message from the president himself. And Zbig told me he opened it up and the message said something like: Dear Zbig, you never know when to stop. (Laughs.)

Now, Brzezinski was telling me this story proudly, as evidence of his close relationship with the president. (Laughs.) The mystery to me always—and, you know, I struggled with this in my narrative—was to explain how Carter tolerated Brzezinski, because they did disagree again and again. You can see this in Carter’s handwritten notes in the margins of the memos that Brzezinski would send him. And Brzezinski was wrong most of the time about large policy issues. He had a very rigid, Cold War worldview that clashed with Cy Vance. And President Carter invariably sided with Cy Vance and opposed Brzezinski. So why did he keep him on? You know, chiefly throughout the—you know, the through the Iran Revolution, and the hostage crisis?

He kept him on because Carter, again, is a decent man who, you know, didn’t want to fire anyone so close to him. He found Brzezinski, in fact, very entertaining. He liked him personally. He just disagreed with him. And he was warned by Richard Holbrooke at the very beginning of his administration. During the transition Carter calls up Holbrooke and says he’s thinking of appointing Brzezinski and Cy Vance, respectively. And Holbrooke says, well, sir, I’m—I hate to say it, but I don’t think you can have both of them. They have two different worldviews and personalities. And they will clash. And they—and he—(laughs)—so Carter essentially ignored that advice. And he stuck with Zbig. And I argue in my narrative that this explains a lot of his subsequent problems in the field of foreign affairs.

TAKEYH: Thank you.

Jonathan, please, the author of the fine biographer of Carter as well.

Q: Thanks, Ray. So my book, which is called His Very Best came out last fall. Has much less in it about the Brzezinski-Vance wars. A whole forest died in the late 1970s chronically this, you know, bureaucratic struggle, which I know a lot about. And, you know, I interviewed Brzezinski. I followed this whole this very closely. But I concluded it wasn’t of great importance. And so while I deal much more with Carter’s pre-presidential and post-presidential lives in my book than Kai does, I deal much less—or, somewhat less on these bureaucratic struggles.

Jimmy Carter was his own secretary of state, like John F. Kennedy. People couldn’t imagine that, because they thought, how could this peanut farmer, you know, know what to do in the world? But he did. He made all the decisions. As Kai said, he frequently—most of the time rejected Brzezinski’s advice on things like, you know, pushing the shah to put down the rebellion more forcefully in 1979, but across a whole range of issues he rejected his advice.

Why did he keep him? Because he was intellectually stimulated by him, as Kai said, and entertained. But he liked, as Carter told me, he liked having that range of advice so he could make his own decisions. But, you know, except for the spadework that he did on China, which was extraordinarily important and one of—I think Kai and I should explore this because we have a real difference of opinion on China. I devoted a whole chapter to it. I think it’s the foundation of our global economy, that bilateral relationship that he established with Deng Xiaoping.

Kai thinks that normalization was inevitable, and I think we should discuss this because this was an extraordinarily important part of Carter’s foreign policy legacy. And Carter believes it will be the most long-lasting part of his legacy. He said that to David Rubenstein and Stu Eizenstat at the 92nd Y, and I discussed it with him afterward.

On human rights, just very briefly, Karl Deutsch thinks that will be his longest-lasting legacy, the great Harvard professor of international relations ran into Carter on the path at Emory a couple years after he left the presidency. And he said, you know, a thousand years from now, historians will cite your human rights policy as the first time that he knew of that a government—a major government made the way other governments treated their own people important in the making of their foreign policy. So even though it was hypocritical in many respects, it was a truly historic idea that the way other countries treated their people trumped their claims of sovereignty in the eyes of American foreign policy.

And as Kai said, you know, Latin America over the following ten years was transformed. There, Eagleburger, who had hated Patt Derian and tried to leave town when he was ambassador in Belgrade every time she showed up because she would just get into a fight with Tito, he later concluded that he was wrong and Derian was wright. And Vaclav Havel also wrote in very complimentary terms about the importance of that human rights policy. And there was a Soviet dissident who was released in a prisoner swap. And Carter had him to church in Plains, Georgia. And before church he pulled off his shoe, and he showed Rosalynn Carter that he’d had a little picture of her husband in his shoe the whole time he was in prison in the Soviet Union to inspire him.

So, Ray, I just have to, you know, reject this idea that even though it may have started as a political ploy—which, actually, it was Holbrooke who during the campaign first urged Carter, for political reasons, to talk about human rights. Notwithstanding that, it became a real, if hypocritical, policy that has had tremendous benefits for the world moving forward.

TAKEYH: Thanks.

Kai, do you and Jonathan want to straighten out your China disagreement?

BIRD: (Laughs.) Well, I agree with much of what Jonathan just said, particularly on the human rights issue. But, yeah, I give less in my narrative to the whole China decision, because it’s actually—it’s sort of more boring than most of the issues I was dealing with, because there was no fight. You know, Vance was in favor of normalization. So was Brzezinski. So was Carter. So was everyone. So was Henry Kissinger. And in a political economy sense, yes, I do believe it was kind of inevitable. World markets were going towards globalization, and this was an inevitable process. And Brzezinski, you know, helped it along, but Vance would have achieved the same thing if he had made the second trip. And I think Brzezinski gets too much credit for something that was going to happen anyway.

TAKEYH: Thank you. We go by—

Q: Can I just respond?

TAKEYH: Please, Jonathan, go ahead.

Q: Since we do like a little bit of disagreement. It makes these things more interesting.

So I think, you know, as a journalist, I like to cover things if there’s a fight, if there’s conflict. That’s what we like as journalists. But I think historians have to take a different view. And whether something was controversial within the administration at the time is less relevant for its long-range importance. So, you know, the Ford administration was pursuing a two-China policy. Ford had to worry about his right wing. He was so worried about his right wing that after he lost, during the transition, the widow of Phil Hart, this beloved senator, went to him and said: Will you pardon draft dodgers? We need to bring this to a close. And Ford didn’t even have the guts to do that when he was a lame duck. Of course, Jimmy Carter did it in the first week of his presidency, because he had balls on that issue.

So Ford was scared of his right wing. And if he had been elected in 1976, it would have been at least another four years before we threw Taiwan under the bus, which is what Carter did. And so after normalization—which was a complicated process with one of the great men of recent world history, Deng Xiaoping. So I didn’t think there was anything boring about it at all. After that—immediately after that, Deng Xiaoping goes back and liberalizes—legalizes private enterprise, and all sorts of things that grew out of that visit to Washington that have profoundly changed the world, you know, in the last forty years.

So, and then there were all kinds of other things that happened. Like, shortly before Deng Xiaoping left, he said, you know, Mr. President, you’ve done so much for me. Is there anything I can do for you? And Carter said, you know, when I was a boy I sent a nickel a week or a month to Christian missionaries in China. And then he was sitting—on his twenty-fifth birthday he was sitting offshore, when he was in the Navy, watching some of the Chinese revolution take place on October 1st, 1949. So he had this connection to China. And he said, so—he said, you know, to Deng Xiaoping, can you let missionaries, and churches, and Bibles into China? And Deng Xiaoping says, well, let me think about it.

And he came back the next day, and unfortunately there’s no MEMCOM (ph) on this, unfortunately. I looked really hard for it. So we have to take Carter’s word on this, and Deng’s interpreter died shortly before I was able to check with him. So we have to take Carter’s word. But according to Carter, Deng Xiaoping came back and said: Look, I can’t let missionaries into China. They were not good to my people at the turn of the century. They did a lot of damage. But I see no reason why if Chinese want to practice Christianity, they shouldn’t be able to do so, and they shouldn’t be able to have Bibles. And so there are now seventy million Chinese Christians. They are in state-approved Catholic churches—Christian churches. And they’ve got plenty of Bibles, which they didn’t have at all before 1979. So I would argue that Jimmy Carter is the greatest Christian missionary in world history.


TAKEYH: Thank you, Jonathan.

BIRD: Well, that’s a story about human rights, again, and how Carter made human rights effective. Again, you know, as a historian we have to make choices on how much of a narrative to devote to one issues as opposed to another. And I just found, you know, the Camp David accords and the Iran Revolution and the hostage crisis a much more colorful—and there was new material there. Whereas the China story, to me, seemed to have been told.

TAKEYH: Thank you.

We go by age seniority. Professor Joe Nye.

Q: Thank you, Ray. I’d like to go back to where I we started about human rights and foreign policy. I just wrote a book called Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump. So I wrestled a lot with this. The point is, foreign policy is a tradeoff among different values. And a human rights policy sounds like its absolute. If you have a human rights policy only, you don’t have a foreign policy. And so Carter essentially as he wrestled with this problem of taking human rights seriously, but also taking security and other issues seriously, had to do balancing.

And my experience, in being in charge of nonproliferation policy for the Carter administration in the first three years of the administration, was that Carter actually did this reasonably well. You say, you know, it was Patt Derian versus the White House. Don’t forget Jessica Tuchman, who was on Zbig’s staff, who was very fervent in favor of human rights. But also note that even with Patt Derian, there was a balancing act. I can remember flying down to Buenos Aires with Cy Vance and Patt Derian. And my job was to press the Argentines not to go ahead with a reprocessing plant to compete with Brazil. And Pat’s job was to tell them to let people out of jail and stop disappearing people.

And it was interesting, I mean, I found Pat, you know, problematic, because she was interfering with my portfolio. She found me problematic. And Vance kept a balance between us. He tried to get both those messages across, or to give—and therefore, I think the Vance-Brzezinski dimension on the human rights is a bit exaggerated. I can remember another anecdote where I was—Carter decided to go ahead with a ban on reprocessing plants, which would have included Japan without giving them advanced warning. And I talked to Vance about it, and I said this is a big mistake to fail to give warning first. And Vance said, well, you know, I don’t want to burn that much political capital with the president right now, so go talk to Zbig.

So I went to the White House and I talked to Zbig. And Zbig said, you’re absolutely right. But tell Cy I’m not going to take his chestnuts out of the fire always. (Laughter.) But so there was a tension, but on the other hand there was an ability to cooperate. So I don’t think we want to exaggerate this difference too much, either between human rights and the rest of foreign policy or between Vance and Brzezinski on human rights. Their bigger differences were much more over on how to deal with the Soviet Union and détente.

And I’d just say, in concluding, that when I ranked fourteen presidents on ethics in foreign policy in this book, Jimmy Carter did not come in on the top four, but he wasn’t at the bottom either. He was somewhere around the middle.

TAKEYH: Who was the first?

Q: I frankly gave George H.W. Bush, even though I had worked against him politically, I thought that he was extremely prudent in the way that he managed the end of the Cold War, as well as managed the invasion of Kuwait.

TAKEYH: Kai, please.

BIRD: I’m sorry, what?

TAKEYH: Did you have a response to that, or?

BIRD: Well, I agree with much of that, yeah. I think what Professor Nye is talking about is the internal tussle inside the administration. And, yes, Brzezinski and Vance did cooperate on some issues. But they had profound disagreements over how to deal with the Soviet Union, and détente, and Iran. And I think they had two different—sort of fundamentally different worldviews. And that caused serious problems inside the administration over the long term, and particularly in the last two years.

TAKEYH: Kai, what were those problems? You say it caused serious problems. What happened as a result of this rivalry that would not have happened otherwise? Or how did it affect the machinery of government?

BIRD: Well, let’s get to Iran. You know, specifically Brzezinski was relentless in badgering the president to give the shah asylum. He was relentless in badgering the president to, earlier during the revolution, to take a harder stance, to consider option C, a coup. And, you know, Carter was very wary of that. And he was very wary of letting the shah in for political asylum because he feared exactly what did happen. And Brzezinski, you know, forced the president in the end to do something he didn’t want to do.

He did this again during the spring of 1980 with the helicopter rescue mission, which he planned for in detail and, again, lobbied the president relentlessly to do. And it was a ridiculous operation. It could never have succeeded. Too many parts had to work perfectly. And it was, I think, doomed to failure. And, in its failure, it actually was, in many ways, the final nail in the coffin of Carter’s reelection chances.

So I think there were serious consequences to having Brzezinski inside the White House for four years. He was a disruptive and sometimes even poisonous element. He and Andrew Young clashed all the time. And, you know, speaking of human rights, Andrew Young was another sort of emissary on the human rights issue, particularly in the third world. And recall, he got fired over a trumped-up meeting with a PLO representative in the U.N. And I suggest in the book that, you know, someone leaked the fact that this meeting had occurred. And I think Brzezinski did it.

And that also was a real blow personally to Carter who—you know, Andrew Young was one of his close friends and political allies. And it led to a poisonous split between the African American constituency and the administration and the New York Jewish community. You know, it was a terrible sort of—another sort of awful turning point in the administration.

TAKEYH: Thank you. Age and seniority. I’ll go to Steve Sestanovich, who also happens to be one of my favorite people. Steve.

Q: (Laughs.) Thank you, Ray. I want to get a little more commentary from both Kai and Jonathan about, you know, Carter as political manager. Because it seems to me, we’re—you know, we’re talking a lot about the personal blame that, you know, Brzezinski might bear. Or, we’re giving a counter example that Zbig and Vance could work something out. Or on China, they all agreed.

But, you know, it seems to me there were a lot of other big personalities in this administration. Harold Brown, Paul Warnke, the chiefs, the, you know, secretaries of the Treasury. And, you know, my assessment would be, Carter was not good at this. He was actually not a politician who knew how to exercise control. And to say, well, he had a kind of poisonous national security advisor seems to me not quite to capture what the problem is with Carter as president.

And I’ll give you a contrast. You know, Reagan basically ended up choosing George Shultz as a guy who could control and dominate his foreign policy. And Carter was never able to do that. And I think that’s not just a question of the struggle of personalities, but of a decision that you’re going to have some political unity. You know what you want to do. You want somebody who can get there. And you’re going to pick that guy and empower him. And to say, well, he’s—you know, I actually found him entertaining and stimulating—(laughs)—doesn’t seem to be quite to be a bottom-line political assessment of Carter as president.

BIRD: Well, I would agree. It was, again, Carter’s first mistake in his presidency was to hire Brzezinski, because Brzezinski was going to be a disruptive and—a disruptive influence who was hard to control. Carter wanted Vance. His appointment of Vance is similar to Reagan’s appointment of Shultz. He wanted someone who had a worldview similar to his. He wanted to have America, you know, get over its inordinate fear of communism. And Vance shared that view. Brzezinski did not. And so that was a fundamental mistake. And I agree. I think I’m still curious and perplexed by why Carter put up with Brzezinski. But the fact is, he liked him personally. (Laughs.) And he was reluctant to fire anyone.

TAKEYH: He fired his whole Cabinet. (Laughs.)

BIRD: That was—that was a little later, and it was only actually five members of the Cabinet, and two of them were already—had already submitted their resignation saying they were tired and wanted out.

TAKEYH: Jonathan, do you—no, excuse me, Kai, please.

BIRD: No, go ahead.

TAKEYH: Jonathan.

Q: First, Andy Young told me that it was the State Department. It was Cy’s people who did him dirty. And he had very good supporting evidence for that conclusion. So that was not on Brzezinski.

BIRD: Well, he’s—Young is wrong. (Laughs.)

Q: Well, I’d be interested—I’d be interested in—I don’t want to belabor this. Maybe we can talk later. But I’d be interested in your evidence to the contrary. In any event, I think Stephen makes a really important point, which is that Carter was not a politician. And to be a great president, even a very good president, you have to be an effective politician, both inside and outside your government. His main problems as a politician were in, for instance, not managing his relationship with Ted Kennedy, which proved disastrous when Kennedy challenged him for the nomination in 1980. And he was very curt and not particularly friendly with important people on Capitol Hill, and did things like not consult with Russell Long before he introduced his tax bill, which was just dumb.

On the foreign policy side, however, I don’t think that any of his shortcomings in foreign policy—which were very few in my mind, and we can talk about that—resulted from him not subcontracting it to somebody. He was in charge of his own foreign policy. And except when he, you know, took his eye off the ball on Iran and didn’t work hard enough for the interim government of Bakhtiar to have a chance to succeed, and made some other mistakes on Iran, mostly—most of his foreign policy came up aces in the eyes of history.

And, you know, on Iran, he did not submit to the lobbying of Brzezinski, and McCloy, and other people. Eventually Walter Mondale wanted him to let the shah in. It was because he was hoodwinked by David Rockefeller’s people, who were with the shah as he hopped from country to country. And they convinced Carter that he couldn’t be treated for his cancer in Mexico. He could only be treated in the United States. And then he made the worst decision of his presidency, which was to let the shah in on humanitarian grounds. And the hostages were seized just a few days later.

But he was a little bit—I think where the—the only area where the Brzezinski-Vance thing really intruded on his focus in a super consequential way is that Brzezinski went with Bob Gates, actually, to Algeria, and shook hands with the interim government of Iran—representatives of the interim government of Iran. And those photographs ran in the Tehran Press. And they enraged the student militants, and contributed to the takeover of the embassy. And the main thing that Carter, ridiculously, was focused on at the time was that Vance was mad because Brzezinski had met with people when he was in North Africa who—you know, ambassadors and other people—who were in Vance’s portfolio. And he’s having to deal with this stupid turf fight at a time when they’re on the lip of the volcano.

And so his failure to kind of stay focused on the right things in early 1979, I think, were critically important. But I don’t think his—I don’t think it was Zbig who urged him on to respond the way he did to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for instance. I think he would have done that anyway, for a complicated set of reasons that we can talk about.

TAKEYH: Thank you.

Paul Golob, please.

Q: Hi, there. Thanks, Ray. And, Kai, it’s—I want to pick up on the point we were just talking about, about Carter as a political manager. Because I find it striking that both you and Jon Alter in your books, you both make the point that Carter had a lot more success than we tend to credit him with, and that he’s still known in the public mind as a failed president. And so my question is, what did Carter and his people do wrong in terms of getting their message across? In terms of what did they do through the press or directly to the American people? Why is it that we have such a low view of Carter, and have had such a low view of his presidency for more than forty years, when the facts are that he was a much more consequential and successful president? What did he do wrong there? And I think that goes to the question of how he managed the politics and about being a politician or not being a politician.

BIRD: OK. Well, that’s a great question. And, you know, I agree on the one hand that he—you know, he’s an outlier, as my title suggests. (Laughs.) So he’s not a politician’s politician. Like Obama, he hated the sort of grubbiness of dealmaking in the Congress. And he—as Jonathan points out—he mismanaged, in a way, his relationship with Ted Kennedy. Although, Ted Kennedy, in my account, takes the greater blame for being opportunistic on the health care issue, refusing to compromise to agree on Carter’s health plan as opposed to his. And that set back, you know, the efforts of all liberals to achieve national health insurance by forty years.

But, you know, he was actually pretty adept at dealing with Congress. He got a lot of legislation passed. So he was a good political actor, in many respects.

However, coming back to the foreign policy ledger, you know, he—and your question about the perception—you know, he was up against an establishment. Both the foreign policy establishment, represented by McCloy, and Rockefeller, and Henry Kissinger, and also the sort of Washington establishment, represented by the Washington Post, which was relentless in letting loose the style section reporter on Carter. And making fun of his Georgia accent, making fun of his southern culture, you know, referring to him as a hick—a southern hick. You know, this is—this was—the feature articles in this style section were just really disparaging, and in a very unfair way. They also—the Post went after Hamilton Jordon for his supposed behavior and scandals. But none of it was—you know, it was all fluff. It was very unfair.

And again, coming back to the foreign policy establishment, he just—Carter just couldn’t win with them. He would invite Henry Kissinger in to have lunch, or John McCloy, and then behind—you know, in private they would tell everyone that he was inept and a bumbling idiot. And they were relentless. And I’m speaking of Rockefeller, Kissinger, and McCloy. They actually—it’s—in my book I make a big deal of this. I go into the McCloy papers and I show they formed something called Operation Alpha. They assigned a large budget to this. They spent tens of thousands of dollars. They hired a professional lobbyist. They set out a calendar where each of them would lobby one major member of the Carter administration every week to nag them about giving the shah asylum.

And Brzezinski was part of this. He was, you know, Kissinger’s rival. And he was susceptible to the argument that we’re turning our back on the old shah, an old ally in the shah, and that this sends the wrong message to our allies in the Cold War. And so, Brzezinski became part of this too, nagging Carter and other members of the administration to give asylum. And Jonathan’s point about oh, well, he only succumbed to this when given the information by David Rockefeller about the shah’s cancer, well, that was part of the operation. And it was a false operation. He could have gotten the same medical treatment in Europe or elsewhere, even in Mexico. And the doctor that was hired by Rockefeller to address the shah’s health actually probably helped to kill him by bad medical advice. So it’s all very ironic and tragic. But Carter was a victim of—I would argue—of this foreign policy establishment and the Washington Georgetown set.

TAKEYH: Thank you.

Vali Nasr, a member of that Washington foreign policy establishment. (Laughs.)

Q: Much later. (Laughter.) Well, thank you very much for this fascinating conversation.

First of all, you know, the issue of admitting the shah to the United States, or Brzezinski meeting with the Iranian prime minister in Algiers, these are much, much later. I mean, the mistakes of the administration with Iran started in ’77-’78. And there were many, many critical points that could have gone in a different way. Not necessarily the shah staying in power, but even Iran having had a different kind of a leadership rather than the revolutionaries.

You know, there were other possibilities there. And so by ’79, the die was cast. And Vance’s fingerprints were all over a lot of those issues. And he also lobbied, I think, the administration very aggressively in terms of—in terms of policy. So I don’t think that, you know, if Iran was a disaster, it can be laid only at the door of Zbigniew Brzezinski. I mean, I do think that Vance also was important in that regard.

But I want to go back to the point that Steve raised. I mean, looking at it from, let’s say, my case, that I know Iran, it’s not that Carter was a bad political manager. It looks like he was a bad manager, period. Because—and it doesn’t look like what Jonathan said, that he had his own foreign policy. It looked like he had no particular foreign policy, and these two protagonists—namely Brzezinski and Vance—were directly communicating with the Iranian government, with various elements in the Iranian government, with various elements in the opposition, with various elements in civil society on their own literally on a weekly basis, and each of them giving a very different impression of what the United States policy is.

Now, Ray has argued very successfully the shah should have brushed all of this aside, but the reality is that looking at it from that side, you come across with a very different picture of a chaotic foreign policy in which these two basically spoke for the United States as they pleased. And that is also part of why Iran turned out the way it did, because you were dealing with a shah who could not make his own decisions. So it contributed to that scenario.

BIRD: OK, could I respond to that?

TAKEYH: Please, Kai.

BIRD: You know, in my narrative, looking at the documents from the archives, the oral histories, I find it hard not to simply conclude that what happened in Iran was largely organic to Iran. The revolution was in play. It was in play not in ’77, it was beginning to happen in the ’60s. The shah’s regime was a weird creation. It wasn’t going to last. He acted in ways that were going to inevitably alienate an Islamic society. And when Carter became president, you know, he was basically a victim of events.

And when you argue that, oh, the shah was getting mixed messages. Vance was saying one thing, Brzezinski was saying another, the State Department people on the ground were saying something different. Well, this is America. This is—this happens in foreign policy on a daily basis today and with regard to, you know, any issue. And so you have to ask the fundamental question, is there anything that Carter could have done had he acted differently, where the revolution would not have happened? And I would say, no. It’s—you know, it was going to happen.

So then you have to look at, well, what’s interesting is how did they respond? How did they deal with it? Well, there was, in fact, Brzezinski and his hardliners who were saying we could have cracked down. Well, the shah himself was vacillating about military coup. And in fact, there was no—in retrospect, I think it’s easy to argue—there was never any chance for a coup. The regime was done. And given that, you know, Carter did pretty well.

He vacillated. He explored a coup at the last minute. He tried to keep open the door to the revolution, the new regime. He attempted to explore the options argued by the State Department that perhaps the old National Front boys would take power, that the regime would basically be a literal nationalist regime, and the Khomeini would be, if anything, simply a religious spiritual figurehead. That too proved to be unrealistic. But Carter should not be blamed for mismanaging an enormous historical event that was going to happen, that happened on his watch but the seeds of which were planted years before he even came close to the Oval Office.

TAKEYH: Our last question will be Professor Sarotte.

Q: Yes, hello. I realize that we’re tight on time, so perhaps—if the author permits—perhaps I could get in touch with him offline about some of the details. But congratulations on your book. By way of background to my question I’m actually publishing a book this fall on the next Democratic administration after Carter, namely the Clinton administration, based on documents that I’ve gotten declassified from the Clinton library. It’s called Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate. And I’m grateful to Ambassador Vershbow and Steve Sestanovich for giving me interviews, and for Joe Nye for a very, very generous blurb for the book.

And I’d really like Mr. Bird, if possible, to talk to you about Warren Christopher, because he often, in my story, references the Carter era. And if we could get somehow connected, perhaps through CFR, I have some detailed questions. But I just wanted to ask you a general question about how he was perceived by contemporaries in the Carter era, and how his experiences under Carter, in your opinion, shaped his work in my period.

BIRD: Well, the only thing that comes to mind is the fact that I think Warren Christopher was disappointed when he wasn’t chosen to replace Vance, and instead Carter chose the senator from Maine, Edmund Muskie. I don’t know, I think Carter regarded Christopher as a competent operator, both on the Panama Canal Treaty and during the negotiations in Algiers over the hostage release. And, you know, he didn’t dislike him or disrespect him, but I think he made the decision to appoint Muskie on a political basis.

TAKEYH: Thank you.

I want to say, on a personal note, I think for about half of my life I have admired Kai Bird. I think it was at age twenty-five that I read the McCloy biography and thought to myself: So this is how it’s done. (Laughs.) And then all the other books that came thereafter. I think this is the first time, Kai, that CFR has hosted you?

BIRD: I think that’s right.

TAKEYH: Well, it’s a belated one. This has been a great educational experience for me, and everybody else. I want to thank Kai Bird and all of you for participating. And you both should buy the book. You buy Jonathan’s book. And you’ll learn a lot about a presidency that’s beginning to be reexamined by historians in a new light.

Thank you all very much. We stand adjourned.

BIRD: Thank you, Ray.

TAKEYH: Thank you.


This is an uncorrected transcript.

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