If one were forced to choose low point of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, it might be his July 15, 1979, “national malaise” speech. The country was suffering under inflation, recession, and an “energy crisis”–and we were about to undergo the national humiliation of the Iran hostage crisis. But what was Carter’s diagnosis of America’s problem?
It was not his policies that were to blame. The problem was the American people, who had suffered an inexplicable “crisis of confidence”:
“We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”
The problem, in his mind, was neither the discredited socialist programs of the left or his weak and vacillating leadership. The problem was that we weren’t strong enough to make his policies work, so we had to be scolded for allowing ourselves to succumb to a “national malaise.” (Carter didn’t actually use that phrase, which was coined by one of his advisors, but the speech came to be known by that title.)
Last night, before the Democratic National Convention, Jimmy Carter repeated that historic feat of evasion.
He began the body of the speech by declaring the need for “honesty” in our leaders. Ironically, the rest of the speech is a study in dishonesty, as Carter expects us to ignore the pressing and urgent threats of today, the evidence of history, and the record of his own career.
Repeating his theme of 1979, Carter thinks that the main threat to America’s security is ourselves: “Unilateral acts and demands have isolated the United States from the very nations we need to join us in combating terrorism.” But what about the terrorists-and what actions do we need to take to combat them? The terrorists appear in this speech only in two indirect references; their attacks are treated like an accident or natural disaster, not as the actions of an enemy who must be fought.
Instead of clear and concrete action against the enemy, the only foreign policy goal Carter advocates is friendly relations with other nations. “A cowardly attack on innocent civilians brought us an unprecedented level of cooperation and understanding around the world. But in just 34 months we have watched with deep concern as all this good will has been squandered by a virtually unbroken series of mistakes and miscalculations.”
Those looking for “a virtually unbroken series of mistakes and miscalculations” might be tempted to remember, not the past 32 months, but the 444 days of the Iran hostage crisis, when Carter stood passive and paralyzed, his only attempt at action ending in a pathetically under-supported, doomed rescue mission. If one were to look for a moment at which America lost credibility and respect in the world, this would be it.
It was also the moment that created the terrorist threat we face today. It allowed an Islamic theocracy to establish itself in Iran, becoming the leading sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East for the last 25 years. And it showed a generation of Muslim fanatics that terror attacks and hostage taking-the very strategies now employed by our enemies in Iraq-could defeat America.
In short, Carter presided over the most important foreign-policy failure in the last quarter of a century. Yet he has the temerity to project its results onto the policies of the current administration.
Even worse, he asserts: “Recent policies have cost our nation its reputation as the world’s most admired champion of freedom and justice.” Which policies? Overthrowing a brutal dictatorship in Iraq? Destroying a bloodthirsty theocracy in Afghanistan? No, the liberated millions in those two countries are ignored. The only “recent policy” Carter regards as worth thinking about is the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib-which was not, despite Carter’s smear, a “policy.”
Carter then gets more brazen, blaming Bush for Clinton’s failure to achieve peace by rewarding Palestinian terrorists. “The achievements of Camp David a quarter century ago and the more recent progress made by President Bill Clinton are now in peril.” But the “progress” made by Clinton was only an escalating series of terrorist attacks against Israel-and the craven deal he brokered was smashed to pieces by Arafat four years ago, before Bush even took office.
He ends on the biggest whopper of the evening: “Elsewhere, North Korea’s nuclear menace, a threat far more real and immediate than any posed by Saddam Hussein, has been allowed to advance unheeded.” Does anyone remember who brokered the 1994 deal in which the Clinton administration agreed to provided food and oil to North Korea, in exchange for its promise not to develop nuclear weapons-a promise the North Koreans promptly broke, allowing them to threaten us with a nuclear bomb today? That’s right: it was Jimmy Carter.
This is the same psychological projection Carter employed in 1979. Back then, he suffered a crisis of confidence that left him paralyzed before the fateful challenges of the day-yet he projected his malaise onto the America people. Over the years, he championed a policy of appeasement that squandered America’s power and respect in the world-yet he projects that result onto those who advocate any element of American assertiveness. And he is the one willing to obfuscate the facts to justify his feckless policies.
Well, there he goes again. Let’s hope the American people don’t find his evasions any more convincing than they did 25 years ago.