This interview was originally published in a 1984 issue of the Harvard International Review.
It was a year of extreme frustration for US policy in the Middle East, frustration in both diplomatic and military terms. Attempts by Secretary of State George Shultz and a stream of special envoys to negotiate a withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon proved unsuccessful as that country continued to be torn by fighting among Druze, Shi’ite, and Christian forces. US Marines were deployed at the Beirut airport in September 1982 as part of a multinational peacekeeping force following the assassination of Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel and the subsequent massacre of Palestinian refugees. These forces rapidly became embroiled in the conflict as targets of Druze and Muslim attacks. On October 23, 1983, 241 servicemen were killed in a suicide attack on the Marine encampment, seriously eroding domestic support for President Reagan’s Lebanese policy. Five months after the first Marine was killed at the Beirut airport, Reagan announced on February 7 the decision to withdraw American troops from Lebanon. With the Lebanese army disintegrating and the government of Amin Gemayel teetering on the verge of collapse, US policy in Lebanon was widely perceived as in disarray and US credibility throughout the region seriously diminished. The following comments on the United States in the Middle East are taken from an interview with former President Jimmy Carter, conducted on January 5, 1984, in Plains, Georgia by former HIR Editor-in-Chief Sohail H. Hashmi.
Lebanon is a country that has now been at internal war for nearly a decade. The intense religious and ethnic rivalries indigenous to the country, as well as the injection of foreign forces, have led some observers to conclude that nothing short of a partition of the country can resolve the chronic strife within it. What future do you see for Lebanon, and what diplomatic routes are available toward some lasting resolution to the Lebanese crisis?
I would be strongly opposed to any partition of Lebanon, either dividing it up among the Lebanese, Israelis, and Syrians, or dividing it up among the religious and ethnic factions within Lebanon itself. I believe this would be counterproductive in the long run. We are now involved in Lebanon with the US Marines in a totally indefensible position, in effect attempting to referee in an internal dispute. As far as I know, this is an unprecedented departure from what our country has done in previous peacekeeping efforts. We have deployed troops in an effort maintain peace between the Egyptian and Israeli forces in Sinai. However we now have a small number of Marines, in a highly exposed position, protecting a minority group that is working against a majority of Muslims, Druze, and other Arabs who have come over the past number of months to completely distrust our country as an unbiased mediator or a neutral party. We have never made any serious attempts as far as I know to bring the disputing parties to the negotiating table in whatever role the United States might play. We did make an attempt to negotiate between Israel and the Lebanese government officials in May, but we excluded the Syrians who have an important interest, and of course we remained fairly aloof from the recent talks in November in Geneva among the disputing Lebanese parties. My hope is that we could rapidly extract the Marines from Lebanon and move them to a less exposed position—perhaps the ships offshore—and use whatever diplomatic influence we have to encourage an overall settlement in Lebanon, demanding a total withdrawal of all Israeli and Syrian forces from the country and do whatever we can to let the Israeli and Syrian influence be exerted among the disputing parties in Lebanon to resolve their differences. There are a few steps that might be taken in slight modification of the Lebanese government or constitution. I’m not conversant enough with it to know the details, but one might be popular election of the president, while having him still represent the Maronite Christian forces. There may be some other slight modifications that might be acceptable to the disputing parties. But I think that we should replace our forces with neutral forces acceptable to all sides, perhaps from the United Nations with a stronger force, or perhaps from countries like India, Pakistan, Switzerland, and Sweden.
There were some reports issued by the Lebanese government in the first days of January this year that some terms had been agreed upon by both Israel and Syria for the eventual withdrawal of their forces from Lebanon. These reports subsequently proved to be without basis. However, if Lebanese President Amin Gemayel does request that President Reagan to keep the Marines in Beirut pending the withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian troops, would you find that an acceptable role for US Marines? What is a legitimate reason for continuing the US military presence on Lebanese soil?
I think it’s a mistake to keep them there. You can make an argument for their presence, which has been done for a number of months by the Reagan Administration, primarily to defend the government of Amin Gemayel, in spite of demands by other religious factions within Lebanon, and I guess that’s a reasonable defense of the Reagan policy. I think it’s mistaken, but at least it does have some rationale about it. But our forces are too small to be effective. Over the last few months, because of public statements from Washington and because of actions by our own forces, we have lost any semblance of neutrality, objectivity, or effectiveness as an advisor or negotiator. If Muslim, Druze, and Christian leaders jointly request a multinational peacekeeping force on the basis of a firm ceasefire, that would add another dimension to our forces being retained there. Currently, I do not see them performing a legitimate function.
What were Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s motivations for the seemingly carte blanche release of the captured American pilot, Lt. Robert Goodman? Are there any broader implications underlying this gesture on the part of the Syrians?
I’m not sure that the implications are that broad. The facts as I understand them are that when Mr. Reagan’s ambassador, Donald Rumsfeld, went to Syria as the president’s personal messenger to negotiate solutions to the Lebanese crisis, he didn’t even mention the captured aviator. Following his departure, the Syrians questioned, I presume, the apparent lack of interest on the part of the president or Mr. Rumsfeld concerning the downed aviator. Word got back to the people in the United States, and eventually Jesse Jackson heard about it, and made an issue of it. The State Department at first either denied it or refused to comment on Mr. Rumsfeld’s failure to mention our pilot to Assad, and then later confirmed that that was the case. So I think a combination of factors contributed to Assad’s release of the pilot. First, it gives him a good worldwide image as a humanitarian and perhaps boosts his influence among Europeans and other observers. Secondly, it is a way to embarrass President Reagan and his administration by insinuating that if Reagan had been interested, then the pilot would have been released. And third, I think it is true that over a period of time Reverend Jackson’s statements have been generally supportive of the Palestinian Arab cause. All of these reasons perhaps contributed to the release, but I don’t think there are any broad strategic connotations.
President Reagan has come under increasing Congressional and public pressure to capitalize on the thawing of relations between the United States and Syria following the release of the captured airman. How can President Reagan now best respond to Assad’s gesture?
There has to be a private and public recognition of the great influence that President Assad has over the future of Lebanon and peace in the Middle East. I think that element has been missing so far from the Reagan policy. There’s no future in the United States devoting its negotiating effort just to the relationship between the Gemayel government on the one hand and the Israeli government on the other, excluding the other factions in Lebanon and excluding the Syrians. Assad is an intelligent, proud, ambitious man who has now been launched into a key position as a result of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and his position of influence must be recognized by the Reagan Administration. Whether Assad’s ultimate goals are incompatible with the peace arrangements that would be acceptable to our country, I don’t know. Those kinds of answers can only be derived by sincere negotiations or discussions or talks or conversations between the leaders of Syria and the United States. I see no reason why we shouldn’t be pursing that end.
The Pentagon report on the suicide attack on the Marine encampment in Beirut was highly critical of the ground commanders and called for a general review of U.S. policy in Lebanon. Was President Reagan correct in preempting the policy recommendations of the report by absolving the commanders of responsibility? Secondly, is it proper for a Pentagon investigating committee to openly question the Presidential conduct of foreign policy?
I don’t think it is advisable for a president to preempt a detailed investigation concerning the specific orders from the Pentagon to the highest levels of responsibility assigning policies that resulted in the death of all those Marines, and the obvious lack of adequate security or precautions. We had the clear example of terrorist capability when our embassy was destroyed months earlier. Various intelligence sources warned us about a prospective attack quite similar to the one that resulted in the deaths of the Marines. Deploying so many Marines in a highly vulnerable position was obviously an error in judgment. All of these factors are incompatible with my own experience over eleven years in the US Navy. If the captain of a ship have proper orders to his officer of the deck or his executive officer, and was below in his cabin and the shop ran aground—even because of the mistake of his subordinates—the captain of the ship was held responsible. It was not the responsibility of the President of the United States to say, “let’s don’t investigate this accident. I will assume responsibility for your ship running aground.” It was obvious to the world that the president would not have been personally responsible. It’s an obvious preemption of an adequate investigation, the more important reason being not to punish people who might have been at fault, but through the more detailed assignment of responsibility to make sure that whoever gave the orders or whoever failed to carry out orders—whoever established policy at the local level—is identified and that policy is corrected to prevent a similar incident in the future. So I think it 19 CARTER [President Reagan’s action] was a mistake. I don’t really have any particular objections, to answer the second part of your question, to an investigating committee set up like this one commenting on broader policy. Comment by a committee, even though it may be beyond the purview of their own experience, covering the policy of their superiors, I do not think does any harm. I think it is a proper thing to do and even though it’s not necessary, I do not see any harm that it does.
I’d like to turn now, if I may, to some broader issues of Arab-Israeli peace and the United States’ interests and role in the Middle East. The crisis stemming from the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982 has quite effectively shifted attention away from the long-perceived crux of the regional turmoil, the Palestinian question. What do you see as the short-term and long-term prospects for the West Bank and Gaza? Has the problem of achieving a withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon more or less superseded the centrality of the issue of the West Bank and Gaza?
The only means by which negotiations can be resumed is through heavy involvement by the United States. For the first eighteen months of the Reagan Administration, there was no action nor were statements of any substance made. And then on September 1, 1982, Reagan made a speech shortly after Secretary of State Shultz came into office that I though defined the issues very well. It was completely compatible with the Camp David accords, based upon agreements among Israel, Egypt, and the United States. It was slightly modified, and more or less expressed Reagan’s opinions. But I was disappointed to see that that effort itself has frittered away. So far as I know, there is no concerted effort being made even to implement the proposal President Reagan put forward in that one speech. In the absence of our own nation using its maximum legitimate influence in the Middle East on the Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians, Egyptians and others in the region, no progress is going to be made. In the meantime, of course, the massive settlement policy of Israel is incrementally closing the door to a possible overall settlement. We have lost public cognizance of the fact that the crucial element in the Arab-Israeli relationship rests in the West Bank and Gaza and with the Palestinian problem. But Israel’s security is always of great importance to our country and legitimately so. It is not in question any more. If the parties involved were convinced that our nation was exerting its maximum influence and was willing to exert a major political effort in the quest for peace, it would have a profoundly beneficial impact upon their attitude.
And what are the prospects under the new Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir?
I think basically his policies will continue those pursued under Prime Minister Begin. I don’t know of any incompatibilities. I have known Prime Minister Shamir since he was a member of the Knesset—speaker of the Knesset—foreign minister, and now Prime Minister, and during that period of time, I do not know of any significant incompatibility between his policies and those of Prime Minister Begin. However, the invasion of Lebanon and the tragic consequences of it for the Israelis, Lebanese, and the United States, may have caused some change in attitude within Israel are highly divided on what should be done. In general, my opinion is that the majority of Israelis would support a continued peace initiative involving exchange of some significant portions of the West Bank and Gaza for permanent peace with Jordan, the Palestinians, Syrians, as well as Egypt. But at this time, that’s a moot question because the United States is not doing anything about it.
You wrote in Keeping Faith that you hoped Anwar Sadat would provide an inspiration for future leaders “to make similar bold moves for peace.” From your comments today, it would appear that only some such dramatic gesture could break the new stalemate re-open the possibility of peace negotiations. What “bold moves” are required today, and upon whose part are they demanded?
There is not another Sadat in the Middle East, as far as I know. President Mubarak has basically followed the policies of President Sadat, and I do not know of any action Mubarak has taken since Sadat’s death that Sadat would not have taken under similar circumstances. But the element of strategic commitment, generosity, boldness, and courage that Sadat exhibited has not been in evidence since his death. I would say that the present situation calls for boldness on the part of King Hussein, Yasir Arafat, and President Reagan. I think under those circumstances the 20 1984 Israelis would find it difficult not to join the discussions under the principles of the Camp David accords. You have to recognize the problem of semantics. The Israelis, under a highly distorted form under Begin and Shamir, professed to want negotiations under the Camp David accords. The Reagan initiative, in my judgment, represents what the Camp David accords actually mean. It is a basis for future negotiations to be joined by Jordan, the Palestinians, and Egypt. Most of the Arabs would say we will negotiate under the Fez agreement, which came up shortly President Reagan’s statement in September 1982, and I think the ultimate umbrella for negotiations ought to be UN Resolution 242, which does acknowledge in general terms the principles that were reaffirmed in the Camp David accords and also in the Reagan initiative. The Arab leaders maintain that the Fez statement is also completely compatible with UN Resolution 242, and if you interpret certain words in certain ways, which the Arab leaders do privately, then you can see some compatibility there. But there’s no real incompatibility among these four elements: Camp David, Fez, Reagan Initiative, and Resolution 242.
Does the United States at this moment have a foreign policy in the Middle East?
It’s hard to discern what it is. I presume that we have a policy, but I think it is basically erroneous. We have lost to a substantial degree the trust of the disputing parties, and this statement can be applied to almost all the disputing parties, including even Israel. In order to be successful in bringing peace to that region, there has to be a high-level commitment, and under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and me, all the disputing parties knew that the President himself, and/or the Secretary of State himself, were directly involved in the negotiations for peace in the Middle East. That is no longer the case at all. And no matter how competent Ambassadors Fairbanks, Rumsfeld, and MacFarlane may be, they cannot be a substitute for the president and Secretary of State as far as influence and a vivid demonstration of intense American interest is concerned. As long as that American interest is absent in the minds of the disputing parties, they are not going to make any compromising comments or actions.
Looking ahead in 1984 and beyond, what are your feelings about the general political climate in the region, including the ongoing Lebanese crisis, the perennial problem of the Palestinians, and the lingering feud between Iran and Iraq? What advice would you offer President Reagan on appropriate American responses or initiatives toward these complex issues?
Well, I hope that after 1984 President Reagan will not have anything to say about it, and that we will have another president in the White House who will play a more effective role in bringing peace. But the bottom line, in my opinion, is that the people in the Middle East want peace. Sadat always maintained that the overwhelming majority of citizens from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian community in the West Bank and Gaza wanted peace just as badly as was evident when he went to Jerusalem and when Prime Minister Begin came to Egypt, but that the leaders were the one who stood in the way of progress. That to me is a continuous insurance policy that if the key can be found to the saving of face, the enmeshing of sometimes conflicting ambitions and interests among the leaders of those nations, then those leaders would be supported politically by their citizens and that their boldness, similar to what Sadat contributed, would be favorably received by the people. To repeat myself one extra time, the key to peace is still the United States. We are the only nation that has any substantial influence over Israel, and we are the only nation that can be trusted by a broad range of Arab leaders. You mentioned Iran-Iraq…we have minimal influence in that region. We have non-existent diplomatic relations of an official character and only a negative influence in Iran. Iraq will not listen to us at all for guidance and advice. That is an area, in my judgment, where some of the stronger Arab leaders and European leaders might play a role. Syria can have an influence in Iran. Saudi Arabia and others can have an influence in Iraq, and the Europeans have a much better relationship with these two countries than we do.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic on the prospects for peace in 1984?
I am not optimistic about this year, because this is an election year and I don’t think we are going to take any strong initiatives that would be contrary to the interests or the desires of Israel. I do not think we will make any bold demands for the withdrawal of all troops from Lebanon. I do not think we will reinitiate any effort for a resolution to the West Bank and Gaza Palestinian question, and I see the likely prospect of a continuation of the status quo, which is potentially explosive and which can potentially create a confrontation between the superpowers. So I do not see any prospects for progress. I hope I am wrong.
The proper and appropriate role for the United States in foreign conflicts is a constant source of domestic and international disagreement. While some suggest that the United States oversteps the boundaries established by national sovereignty when intervening, others maintain that US intervention is the key to peace. Supporting the latter view, this 1984 interview of former US President Jimmy Carter in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War highlights Carter’s views on the diplomatic importance of the United States in foreign conflicts.
Since taking office in 1977, Carter has been known for his attempts to promote international peace. Hailed for the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel and the SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union during his presidency, Carter continued his efforts to bring peace in the Middle East after leaving office in 1981. Following his presidency, he won a Nobel Peace Prize and cofounded The Carter Center with wife Rosalynn to continue their humanitarian efforts.
This interview, completed during President Ronald Reagan’s term, highlights President Carter’s view that foreign intervention can be harmful while still emphasizing the importance of the United States in foreign affairs. Given the current conflicts in Lebanon and the ongoing discussion of the United States’ role in global politics, President Carter’s statements provide an interesting framework with which to analyze the development of US foreign policy.