39 thoughts on “Iran, Reagan, Carter”

  1. Didn’t George F. Kennan recommend that we declare war on Iran when they took the hostages? I always liked Kennan, wonderful realist who was able to step back from narrow concerns and grasp the larger lessons and patterns of history. His memoirs are a great read.

  2. Kennan said:

    A number of times, since these people were locked up and since we began to hear the series of unprecedented insults and expressions of contempt for this country that we have heard from the Ayatollah [Khomeini], I have wondered why we and our Government did not simply acknowledge the existence of the state of hostility brought about by the behavior of the Iranian Government, and, having done that, then regard ourselves as at war with that country.

    Of course Iran’s action was an act of war, embassies being national territory. But recommending that someone like Carter acknowledge the fact is like recommending that Venus and Mars swap orbits.

  3. I thought Carter did send a special ops mission to try and rescue the hostages… it just failed miserably. Here’s an atlantic “article”:http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/05/the-desert-one-debacle/4803/

    Now, if you’re seriously looking at keeping the hostages alive, this is the better option than engaging in full war. Of course, full war is the better option if you’re seriously considering removing a threat. But hostage-rescue? not so much.

    It’s worth remembering that the Republican response to this “act of war” was to trade them arms. I’m not sure that’s the appropriate response either…

  4. I tend to agree with Koppel.

    I think the smartest FR team in dealing with the area Bush 41. He acted forcefully, built a solid coalition and got in and out. there are real problems with an all aout war with Iran, among them being population, terrain and the utter impossibility of nation building in what is still the Persian Empire. (Baluchistan, Kurdistan, et al).

    Seizing the Eastern shore of the Arabian Gulf probably would have been enough to cause the collapse of the Islamic Republic, but who would want to ger involved in the idiocy we call nation building. The Soviiets were still a force to be reckoned with at that point and an American threat to thier southern flank had to be considered.

    People forget GHWB’s Foreign Policy heritage, his old man, like Kennan was one of the Wise Men who reshaped the world after WWII.

    Too bad so little of that generationally accumulated wisdom rubbed off on W.

    As far as the Kennen quote is concerned, a state of war does not necessarily mean an invasion. Kennan was one of the great geniuses in Foreign Policy and Diplomacy. I would think his ideas were more subtle than a unilateral invasion.

  5. As far as the Kennen quote is concerned, a state of war does not necessarily mean an invasion.

    Exactly. But it does sharpen the policy debate and recognize a reality.

    As to Carter’s rescue attempt, I knew some ex green berets at the time and of course they got the inside dirt through the grape vine. I don’t remember any details beyond the fact that it was generally agreed the operation was really f*cked up.

  6. Kennan was not advocating an invasion or any specific military action. He was proposing a formal declaration of war against Iran, which would make it crystal clear that we might attack Iran at any time.

    This would mean Iranian nationals in the US could be detained and interned, giving Iran a chance to back down more or less gracefully by exchanging their diplomats for ours.

  7. I agree, Koppel’s article is interesting. It seems to suggest that there’s a bit of nobility in Carter’s soft, but sustained stance, which utltimately worked to get the hostages out alive. With Reagan there was a new sherrif in town, but Koppel is suggesting that, contrary to reputatioin, he was not so tough and not so smart.

    As to “Carter was working against the Republicans” which struck a violent nerve with Marc after the Warren Christopher lecture in ’06, to the point that it’s still sore, I think Marc may have misunderstood Christopher’s intent. Here is Marc’s paraphrase of Christopher in ’06:

    Why didn’t the Americans attack Iran – maybe we should have. Based on Valentine’s Day thought Iranian govt would solve it. He, Vance, Carter thought keeping the hostages alive would be the priority.
    Maybe if forceful action had been used Reagan wouldn’t have been President.

    That is the opposite of “working against the Republicans” that Marc accuses Carter and Christoper of doing. Keeping the hostages alive was the priority, even at the expense of losing the election.

  8. Marc:

    Christopher was a politician and he and the adminstration went through political hell with the 444 day hostage debacle. It was humiliating for the country, and certainly for them personally. And it’s no stretch to think it cost them the election.

    I have no quarrel with your assessment that it made them look feckless–although you can’t really blame Carter for the failed desert action. He has a reputation for micro-managing, but I’ve not read of limitations or directions he placed on that raid to make him resonsible. My assumption is that was the military’s baby.

    I think you’re being ungracious to jump on a rueful reflection by a politician about how more foreceful action, or success of the attempted raid across the desert, might have resulted in a different electoral outcome. As you reported it, I don’t think he’s saying that Reagan’s election is the worst negative outcome of the hostage crisis.

    Koppel’s saying the Iranian’s learned from the episode, subsequently confirmed by Reagan’s actions, and George W’s actions, that the U.S. can be manipulated by attacks on individuals. I’m not so sure that means Carter’s action to wait it out after the failed military rescue attempt was wrong.

    They tried various avenues of negotiation, with Hamilton Jordan coming pretty close to a deal in February. The end result was all hostages were released. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision a worse outcome.

    I’m sure there were other things that could have been tried; that’s always true. But we should leave all hubris out of Monday morning quarterbacking.

    What national interest do you think was at stake in this case that was higher than the lives of the hostages?

  9. Roland, with all respect, I was there and you weren’t. I’ll stand by my interpretation of Christopher’s remarks as made.

    toc and Roland, I’ll suggest that you have an unreasonably high bar on the value of our diplomat’s lives. The reality is that Iran’s politics were quite unstable at the time when the embassy was occupied; the successful occupation and the Khomenists’ success in ‘facing down’ the US was one piece in the solidification of their power that took place between 1979 and 1982.

    A different US response would have potentially (we’re talking alternate histories here) have weakened the Khomeni movement enough that other – more moderate Islamic, liberal or Socialist – groups could have checked the Islamist’s power.

    Iran has provoked bloodshed throughout the Middle East in it’s quest to both become a regional hegemon and to spread the ideological/ religious movement that it’s leadership embraces.

    Simply preventing that regional bloodshed would have been worth risking the lives of the hostages.

    Beyond that, one of the risks we face in the world today is the movement within Islam that has roots in the Iranian revolution – a movement that transcends the Sunni/Shia divide and – like Christianity in the 10th Century – has the potential to trigger religious wars within the Islamic world and outside it.

    That movement was strengthened by the success of Khomeni and the obvious weakness of the West, as led by Carter and Christopher. While I would never claim that the movement is somehow their fault, they were asleep on the job when we had a chance to – relatively cheaply – do something about it.

    That would have certainly been worth risking the hostages lives for as well.

    I’m interested in why you don’t think it would have been.


  10. I have to say, Roland, that the notion that the hostages were freed by Carter’s “soft, sustained” approach is so laughable that I don’t think even Jimmy Carter could bring himself to utter it.

    We now know for a fact that the Iranians were determined to humiliate Carter, and the only way he accomplished the hostage release was by getting his butt kicked in the election. The Iranians waited until the very moment of Reagan’s inauguration to release them.

  11. And I’m unshakably convinced that had we turned Tehran into a parking lot in 1979, September 11 would just be another block on the calendar. OBL himself has cited it as proof of America’s weakness.

  12. Yes, I’m sure if we just nuked a country off the map, there would be no repercussions whatsoever, and all terrorism would fade away….

    I find that unlikely. Instead (as I’ve mentioned before) I think terrorism would skyrocket, and even our conventional allies would turn on us. I guess there’s only one way to find out…

    And for Osama, I’m sure he would cite as a reason for our upheaval….

  13. I remember reading, although I can’t remember where, a tougher initial response probably would have brought the hostages home almost immediately. The weakness of the Carter administration response made the rulers of Iran at the time realize they could use the hostage to increase their stature.

    Unfortunately it is impossible to know what would have transpired if the Carter administration had acted tougher. All we do know is that the actions they did take were one of the domino’s that led to September 11.

    I do want to emphasize I don’t put any blame for September 11 on anybody in the Carter administration. That is solely on Bin Laden and his cronies.

  14. Glenn:

    The point isn’t whether Carter’s overall patience resulted in the hostages’s ultimate release; the point is that his sustained patience didn’t get the hostages killed. That’s something.


    Sure, if you assume that some action–you’re not being very forthcoming here about what you think that action could have been–would have brought about a stable, non-revolutionary government in Iran, and prevented the rise (or is it consolidation) of terrorist Islamic fundamentalism, I’d sacrifice the hostages for that.

    However, that’s not how the world works. Speaking of alternative histories, any number of actions–and I’m not being forthcoming either because I don’t know enough here–could have resulted in the death of the hostages, without helping one whit to slow the Islamist terrorist forces that developed over the subsequent 25 years.

    The flip side of being tough and decisive, a “decider” if you will, is that you can influence events for the worse. That seems to be the case with our war in Iraq. Nearly 3,000 dead in the WTC, but that’s not so many compared to many natural disasters around the world. That event in and of itself was not more of a threat to the nation than a large earthquake. It carried more emotional wallop, it made us angrier, than the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, but it’s not clear that such a terrorist event was any more likely to recur than an earthquake. We went into Iraq with great moral certainty, and killed (numbers are contentious) about 100,000 Iraqis during the 2003 invasion, and some counts are as high as 600,000 deaths resulting from the war and resulting instability through 2010. Is the world better off for it? Have we achieved justice? We have greatly strengthened Iran in the process; are we safer? But by God we *did* something, but is that something a little like charging off to war after an earthquake.

    An alternate history would have been to play the moral standing and sympathy that 9/11 invoked to rally the international community to police terrorism, and to do it without invasion of Iraq. A friend quipped that “Saddam was doing a pretty good job, we just didn’t know it.” There is some truth in that.

    I’m not sure about your comment to “unusually high bar for the value of our diplomats’s lives?” I trust you are not suggesting that a “diplomat’s” life is worth less than that of a soldier or a civilian in New York. What about the 100,000 to 600,000 Iraqis who are dead because of our actions? Are their lives worth less?

    I have no strong convictions or answers to any of this. I do have some humility about rushing to judgment of people about these things. Despite the tenor of comments above, that includes Bush.

  15. Roland, I can’t see “sustained patience” in that debacle in the desert, in which 8 servicemen died, and their bodies left behind to be desecrated. It was instead a desperate attempt to quick-fix the situation.

    Neither do I see that as being the best way to ensure that the hostages were not killed. Seems more like the worst way to me.

  16. Roland, I’ll suggest you check out Max Weber’s “Politics as a vocation” for a discussion of the problem in politics – that you can’t know how things will turn out.

    My beef with Christopher and Carter isn’t that the outcomes of their actions were so bad (although they were) but that the criteria they were making decisions on were so transparently shallow and self-interested (keep Reagan out of office, don’t do anything that leads to it being my fault a hostage died).


  17. Marc:

    Spent the day riding single track on a mountain bike in your Santa Monica Moutains. Pretty country you have there.

    I’m not sure what you are thinking of from the Weber lecture. Perhaps this:

    A politician should marry the ethic of ultimate ends with an ethic of responsibility. The latter, which is the ultimate criterion for judging politicians, should take into account all that is at stake in making a political decision, namely all the convictions and the relative weight and moral importance. A politician must possess both passion for his vocation and the capacity to distance himself from the subject of his exertions (the governed).

    This is from the Wikipedia synopsis. The idea of political responsibililty as an amalgam of “convictions” and the “relative weight and moral importance” of a decision strikes me as a bit vague. I’ll put the lecture on my reading list on your recommendation.

    I understand your point that the main issue was whether some positive action could have been taken to influcencce the Iranian revolution, and that (perhaps) depending on the effectiveness of such action this might have justified sacrificing of the hostages. [TOC goes as far as to say that the hostages are “irrelevant” in the calculus, but that’s not what I understood you to say]

    The point I was making above, is

  18. . . . con’t.

    Above I said, “That’s not how the world works” in response to Marc’s formulation that any number of unspecified actions would have justified a sacrifice of the hostages.

    To elucidate, I don’t think sufficient information could have been available to complete such a moral calculus. The best that one might conceivably achieve would be that “X” action would have “Y” chance of succes and “Z” chance of getting the hostages killed. But in fact, there are too many unknowns and variables, almost always, to be able to assign realistic probabilities. Of course, the consequences of not acting (which is the charge you lay at Carter’s feet) is also impossible to predict meaningfully.

    Nevertheless, a politician or military leader must act–and must take responsibilty for his or her actions–even in the face of this uncertainty. I gather that is one of the things Weber takled in his talk about politcs as avocation. Doing nothing, of course, is also a course of action. And it brings responsibility just like action.

    I think you are right to takle the process of how decisions get made (although I’m not accepting of your charge here). But any assertion that boldly posits some counter factual historical action would have had a better (even vastly better) outcome is on shakey ground in my view.

    Certainly Glenn is correct about his observation in #20 about the debacle in the desert. But the fact remains that the hostages got out. Lucky or not, that was a good outcome, and any statement that some other, more assertive, course of action would have had a better outcome needs a whole lot more support than glib asserion.

  19. Sigh. Roland, toc, remember it wasn’t until ’81 or ’82 that the mullahs solidified their control.

    I’m really reluctant to play “Risk” here, except to say that there were clearly more aggressive options far short of invasion.

    There was a menu of things we could have done that would have been reasonable and humane; a show-of force blockade of their oil terminals. destroy the runways at their air force bases. Arm and advise the socialist/liberal opposition so they didn’t get rolled up quite so easily by the religious police.

    We could have leaned hard on the French who were happy to push their trade interests forward.

    We wouldn’t have had to defeat the nation; there was a faction that had a violent and tenuous hold on the country that we might have pushed back.

  20. I’ve no quarrel with the general proposition that different things could have been done and that some of those might have helped.

    For anyone who hasn’t read it, Azar Nafisi’s book “Reading Lolita in Teheran”:http://www.amazon.com/Reading-Lolita-Tehran-Memoir-Books/dp/081297106X/ is a really interesting memoir of those years.

    My quarrel is with an attack on people’s good faith without having a proper appreciation for what the concrete options really were.

    Is anyone aware of a good book about this episode that looks at the options on the table, options considered, not only by the U.S. but by France, the U.N., and others?

    Once we divorce the issue from getting the hostages out, it’s not just a Carter issue anymore, it’s a world issue.

  21. The current crisis in Egypt may well surpass Iran in negative consequences. And once again we have a president from the anti-foreign policy party who has no clue what to do. At least last time we had a vice president who knew enough to keep his mouth shut.

    Obama can rest assured that he will be excused and even praised for whatever colossal cluster-fuck is coming, which will be all the fault of the Bush-Cheney-Israelis.

  22. alchemist –

    For one thing, I wish he could go back in time and take back that goddamn mosque sermon he gave in Cairo two summers ago. Apparently he thought the entire country of Egypt had just volunteered for the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, and needed a hearty send-off from the “Holy Koran”. Well, they might need just that before long.

  23. Glen,

    Forgive my stupidity here, but I cannot for life of me make out

    a) what you think Obama ought to be doing regarding Egypt;

    b) what he said in his Cairo speech that he shouldn’t have said; or

    c) what is the — or even a — anti-foreign policy party.

  24. mark –

    Here’s a few:

    1. Tell Joe Biden to shut up.

    2. Tell Hillary Clinton to sober up, stop belittling the situation, and come home from Haiti immediately.

    3. Forget about Obamacare for fifteen seconds.

    4. Get that famous mouth in motion, and remind the world that we have been paying Egypt a billion dollars a year (almost every cent of which was spent on weaponry, sigh) to be a peaceful society, not to be an eternal dictatorship or another bloodthirsty Islamic Republic. Remind both Mubarek and his enemies that we will consider ourselves ill-served by either of these outcomes, and that OUR DISPLEASURE MIGHT BE BAD FOR THEM.

    5. When he was in Cairo he waxed loud about the right of women to wear hijab. (In front of an audience full of veiled women.) This might be a good time to remind the world that we also support the right of women to not wear hijab.

    6. Make it clear once and for all that we regard the Muslim Brotherhood as the enemy of the United States, of civilization, and of organic life itself, and we will not be pleased by their ascendancy.

    7. Realize that Egypt has the seventh largest army in the world, the fourth largest fleet of F-16s in the world, and a pile of Abrams tanks. In other words, this might be more important than some of the other little shit right now.

    So that’s what the cabinet would have been hearing from me this morning, for starters.

    Here’s what I mean by “anti-foreign policy party”:

    1. A vice president who shoots off his mouth and commits the country to disastrous positions (or even non-disastrous positions) and nobody cares because … nobody cares.

    2. A Secretary of State who the president despises and can’t communicate with, because she was just tacked onto the administration for domestic political purposes. As for the job she’s supposed to be doing, nobody cares.

    3. The belief that all the world needs is a Beautiful American Liberal to admire. That’s the biggie. It’s the only foreign policy that the Democratic Party has had since the day JFK died. Unless you count Vietnam, of course.

  25. alchemist –

    So you don’t like 1-3? Not even a conversation? Here are three more characteristics of the anti-foreign policy party:

    4. The belief that the only alternative to a passive foreign policy is to drop bombs on people.

    5. The belief that all foreign policy problems are too tough or too complicated to do anything about, so all praise to the “leader” who does nothing.

    6. Past negligence excuses present incompetence.

    BTW, don’t be so sure that the army will not shoot people. There are elements in the opposition that are deliberately trying to provoke that response. Hopefully they will not succeed, but they are not done trying.

  26. mark –

    The things a POTUS says do impact events, which is why it’s better to say the right things than the wrong ones.

    In regards to Obama’s words in particular, I just came across this “Leon Wieseltier piece in TNR”:http://www.tnr.com/article/world/82435/egypt-riots-american-liberals-cairo that says it better.

    Of what use is happy talk to unhappy people? Do societies desperately in need of secularization and its blandishments really need the American president to cite their Scripture to them? In accordance with his warm new priorities, democracy was the fourth of Obama’s five themes is his speech in Cairo in 2009, the one called “A New Beginning.” When he finally got around to it, he introduced it this way: “I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.” Or: the United States will no longer bother you about how you are living. He then proceeded to a fine little sermon about the virtues of government “through consent, not coercion,” but said nothing about the political conditions in Egypt… It was a terrible mistake for Obama to make democratization seem like an “imposition,” with its imperialist implications, and to conflate it with military invasion.

    It’s worth reading the whole thing.

  27. mark –

    There is no iota of a “direct call for democracy” in Obama’s speech. There are four paragraphs of platitudes – in between assalaamu alaykum, assalaamu alaykum, and more assalaamu alaykum – to assure everybody that Obama personally likes democracy. So long as it isn’t imposed on people … Who goes around imposing self-rule on people? Not Obama, that’s for sure.

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