Did Carter Fail on Human Rights?

By Jacoby, Tamar | The Washington Monthly, June 1986 | Go to article overview

Did Carter Fail on Human Rights?


Jacoby, Tamar, The Washington Monthly


DID CARTER FAIL ON HUMAN RIGHTS?

President Reagan knew he had tapped something important this spring when he vowed in the name of human rights to "oppose tyranny in whatever form, whether of the right or the left.' Some people were skeptical, of course. They had heard this sort of promise before, and the president's brief remarks about human rights--a few sentences buried in a long statement sent to Congress--seemed designed largely to justify his support for "indigenous resistance' forces in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the statement clearly struck a chord. Human rights concerns were suddenly respectable again, without reservation, and the American public seemed to breathe a sign of relief as the president declared that he was returning to a foreign policy unequivocally in keeping with the country's traditional idealism.

What the president was recognizing, to his credit, was that he had been unable to bury the human rights policy he had inherited from Jimmy Carter. This was not a revelation. President Reagan had learned early on that, like it or not, he could not dispense with the language of morality and humanitarian concern that Carter had used to discuss foreign policy. Under pressure from Congress, the public, and human rights organizations, the Reagan administration had found it necessary to factor human rights into its policy toward Chile, Haiti, and the Philippines --the cases where it boasted of its human rights efforts--and also toward El Salvador, South Africa, Turkey, South Korea, Nicaragua, Poland, and the Soviet Union, among other countries. It had discovered that the American people simply were uncomfortable with unadorned realpolitik--with a foreign policy that did not seem to serve a moral purpose beyond national security.

The president himself clearly required such a purpose, although his was anticommunism rather than human rights. In fact, whatever was said about the Carter policy, neither the right nor the left seemed to have much doubt that we as Americans were--at some level--responsible for the political well-being of other people around the world and that it was the task of our foreign policy to promote that well-being in one way or another. The difference, in early 1986, was that when President Reagan embraced human rights he seemed willing to back up his words with deeds, even in places, like Haiti and the Philippines, ruled by right-wing dictators.

It was a heady moment, an opportunity for Americans to congratulate themselves on both their moral vision and on a measure of political consensus. In the midst of the enthusiasm, no one stopped to ask--or seemed to remember--what went wrong with the Carter human rights policy. No one seemed to recall how politically divisive it had been or how foolishly righteous it had often sounded. President Reagan himself seemed to have forgotten that he had once campaigned against it and that his advisers--particularly Jeane Kirkpatrick--had charged that the Carter policy was detrimental to American interests in places like Nicaragua and Iran. More than that, no one seemed to remember how far Carter had had to back off the idea in the course of his four years in office. No one seemed to recall how little real progress he had achieved or how generally ineffective this failure had made him seem.

Two recent books--one by Gaddis Smith, professor of history at Yale, the other by Joshua Muravchik, a writer and former aide to Senator Henry M. Jackson*--may serve to remind us. The two authors differ considerably in their judgments of the Carter approach, but both agree that it failed, and both endeavor to lay the foundations for a more successful human rights policy.

* Morality, Reason, and Power: American Diplomacy in the Carter Years. Gaddis Smith. Hill and Wang, $17.95. The Uncertain Crusade: Jimmy Carter and the Dilemmas of Human Rights Policy. Joshua Muravchik. Hamilton Press, $18. …

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