Carter Adminstration (1977–1981), United States National Security Policy
█ CARYN E. NEUMANN
While President Jimmy Carter notably became the first president to label access to Middle Eastern oil as a vital security interest, his single term in office is widely viewed with skepticism in terms of national security. Carter's micro-management and concomitant power struggles within the administration did little to arrest the sharp decline in American power and influence that occurred in the 1970s.
In the 1976 presidential election, the Democrats chose Carter, a one-term governor of Georgia as their standard bearer specifically because he could capitalize on the post-Watergate cynicism about politicians. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, a born-again Baptist, and a peanut farmer, the folksy Carter spent the campaign stressing both his honesty and his lack of inexperience in the byways of Washington politics. He promised to use his engineering education and his experience as an officer on a nuclear submarine to be a hands-on manager who would establish systemization in government. In office, Carter's strong concern with the minutiae of administrative procedure left him less able to assume the chief leadership role among top levels of government.
Carter sought to avoid the extreme centralization of power that had characterized the Nixon administration's security policy. He expected to serve as a policy initiator and manager who would make decisions from the range of views presented to him by his senior advisors. He saw Secretary of State Cyrus Vance as the principal advisor for foreign policy, while the National Security Council would play a less active and assertive role than in previous administrations. In practice, the Carter administration had two secretaries of state. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, a man accustomed to aggressive debate, proved particularly adept at gaining the president's confidence. He also became an outspoken advocate of the administration's security policy. Vance publicly competed with Brzezinski for the position of chief presidential advisor, a situation that left some congressional members confused about the chain of authority. Vance ultimately resigned in 1980 in protest over the failed rescue attempt of the American hostages held by Iran. His replacement, Edmund S. Muskie, had too brief a term to make a significant impact.
While suffering from management strategy weaknesses, the Carter administration may have been troubled from the start by growing problems facing the United States. Dwindling resources had led to a severe energy crisis that worsened when renewed violence struck the Middle East. This situation prompted Carter to issue a new foreign policy declaration that marked energy as a matter of national security. The Carter Doctrine stated that the United States would employ force if necessary to protect its continued access to the oil fields of the Middle East. The administration also pushed for the development of synthetic fuels, but Congress only partially funded this request.
Like Nixon and Ford before him, Carter attempted to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union. The controversial Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) was similar to SALT I in that it did not do much to slow down the nuclear
arms race. The agreement placed a ceiling of 2,250 bombers and missiles on each side and set limits on the number of warheads and new weapons systems. In order to ensure that the Soviets did not gain an advantage in the number and destructive power of land-based missiles, Carter proposed the MX missile system. The system proposed to befuddle the Soviets and prevent them from successfully launching an attack by moving the MX missiles around a vast maze of underground tunnels connected by a railroad. While the Senate debated the merits of SALT and the MX, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Carter immediately shelved the treaty.
Carter's presidency would be further weakened when the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 exposed the inability of the U.S. to control world affairs. Carter appealed to the United Nations for help but the head of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ignored the U.N.'s requests. Carter then froze Iranian assets and imposed a trade embargo. Americans clamored for a military response, which Carter eventually provided by sending commandos to Iran in 1980. The raid was aborted by helicopter failures that left eight soldiers dead. The crisis finally ended after 444 days when Carter released Iranian assets to ransom the 53 hostages.
█ FURTHER READING:
Carroll, Peter N. It Seemed like Nothing Happened: America in the 1970s. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
Crabb, Cecil V. and Kevin V. Mulcahy. American National Security: A Presidential Perspective. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1991.
Cold War (1972–1989): The Collapse of the Soviet Union
Eisenhower Administration (1953–1961), United States National Security Policy
Middle East, Modern U.S. Security Policy and Interventions
National Security Advisor, United States
Nixon Administration (1969–1974), United States National Security Policy