Misulonas: United States could learn from Carter’s diplomacy abroad


Joseph Misulonas, Columnist

In the new critically acclaimed film “Argo,” Hispanic CIA agent Tony Mendez, played by the very white Ben Affleck, is sent to Iran to extract six American diplomats who are hiding out in the Canadian Embassy during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. As the bearded Affleck is preparing to rescue the diplomats, he gets a call from his boss that the operation has been canceled by the Carter administration. Affleck decides to go through the operation anyway. His actions speak louder than words: “Suck it, Carter! We’re not letting your cowardice endanger American lives!”

Of course, this is all fiction. In real life, the Carter administration was on board with the operation, and there was no last-minute cancellation. However, “Argo” plays off the widely held belief that Jimmy Carter was a terrible president.

During Carter’s presidency, America went from struggling to collapse. The economy was stagnant, we were in the middle of an oil embargo, and for 444 days, 52 Americans were held hostage in Iran as Carter appeared completely incompetent at solving any of these problems.

Carter has become the Democratic bogeyman. Republicans use the story of the dreaded Carter White House to scare independents into voting for the GOP, while Democrats try to convince their impressionable base that the whole four years were just a myth.

Carter has become a pariah in his own party. During the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton received a prime time speaking slot and talked for 50 minutes about President Obama’s plans for a second term. Carter got a four-minute video right before the Secretary of Interior. To put this in perspective, Nobel Prize winner Jimmy Carter received one-twelfth the speaking time of the president who was impeached after receiving oral sex in the Oval Office.

Mitt Romney has invoked the name of Jimmy Carter several times on the campaign trail. He accuses President Obama of following in Carter’s footsteps, making the country weaker through his ineffective leadership. He says the Obama administration has not done enough to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or to project America’s power abroad. It is particularly convenient for Romney to reference Carter because it places him in the position of a modern-day answer to GOP messiah Ronald Reagan.

However, it seems bizarre, or at least disingenuous, that Romney would compare Obama to Carter, considering the enormous difference in the two presidents’ foreign policy approaches.

Carter was a firm believer in diplomacy. Instead of threatening war or bombing Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis, he used various intermediaries to stay in contact with the Iranian regime to work to get the hostages back. Obama has shown little of Carter’s restraint. He has firmly embraced the use of drone strikes, designating any adult male in the vicinity of terrorist suspects as an enemy combatant. When he discovered the location of Osama Bin Laden, instead of consulting the Pakistani government, he sent in a team of Navy Seals to eliminate him unilaterally. Obama has also instituted the harshest set of sanctions on Iran ever and their economy has plummeted as a result (although Carter would support Obama’s multilateral institution and enforcement of these sanctions).

Obama’s gung-ho attitude may have helped him nab Bin Laden, but it will ultimately hurt the nation as a whole. The Middle East is heading down a path of self-determination: Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and now Syria have all expressed their interest in instituting governments that are accountable to the people. It will do the United States no favors in a newly accountable Middle East if we continue to indiscriminately bomb towns without warning, killing innocent civilians in the process.

Romney has said he is disappointed that Egypt selected an Islamist party to lead their government and he wants to help moderate Muslims take power throughout the Middle East. It’s hard for the U.S. to say they have the best interests of the Middle East at heart when we continually bomb their towns under the ambiguous guise of the “War on Terror.”

For some foreign policy goals, like using sanctions to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, toughness can work. Other times, it will only turn more people against you, such as in our use of drone strikes. If we want the Middle East to head down a more moderate path, we need to start showing some of the restraint Jimmy Carter was known for.

After all, there may be no racially ambiguous Ben Affleck to save the day when our foreign policy comes back to bite us.

Joseph Misulonas is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].