America started down a path of complete moral decay toward the end of the 1940s, from which we have not recovered from since. There was only one truly honest and concerted effort to stop this path of moral dissipation, and that was by President Jimmy Carter. This moral decay takes the form of political and military interventions in foreign nations, mainly in the Middle East but also in Central and South America, thinking only of America’s short term gain and disregarding the human suffering inflicted on the people of these countries by U.S intervention. These interventions not only damaged America’s reputation as a “force for good” abroad that we had garnered after WW2, but they also led to the deterioration of America’s reputation among American citizens domestically.
In the early stage of Carter’s presidency, he tried to restore the moral reputation of America by focusing on winning the hearts and minds of the world. His strategy included an advancement of human rights around the world, a decision to respect the sovereignty of other nations, something that America stopped doing after 1947, and to achieve a moral high ground for the U.S that would attract nations in transition to embrace liberal democracy instead of turning to communism. Looking at our contemporary foreign policy, which involves frequent political interventions that America engages in, and all the indiscriminate bombings that kill civilians abroad, there is much we can learn from Carter’s approach and apply to today’s foreign policy to arrive at a more peaceful world. This analysis will demonstrate why moral government is not just good for morality’s sake, but why it’s the best policy for the long term practical prosperity of America and its people.
The Importance of Maintaining Moral Character
Let us begin with an exploration of why having the moral high ground is important for a global superpower like America. If we take the example of signature strikes that are conducted by the Air Force, which are defined as, “a military attack by a drone or drones in which people are targeted because their activities are believed to fit a particular behavioral profile, though their individual identities are unknown”. A former drone operator who conducted drone strikes, when asked to comment on their true nature, said, “It’s really like we’re targeting a cell phone. We’re not going after people – we’re going after their phones, in the hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy”. This is because a cell phone that the military believes, at some point, was in the hands of a potential terrorist is targeted for bombing, days or even weeks after an initial report. For all the Air Force knows, that cell phone could be in the hands of a small child or at a house of a friend, who is not a terrorist. This is why we hear about weddings being bombed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Does someone deserve to die because they happened to be in the same vicinity as a possible terrorist? To any moral person, the answer to this question would be, “No”, but apparently specific motives don’t matter and human rights don’t apply if you live anywhere outside the borders of the U.S.
These factors are never taken into account before drone bombs are deployed. Which shows a callous disregard for human lives on the part of the American military. And, it also explains why civilian deaths are significantly higher than what the Pentagon had initially reported, “According to new figures released Wednesday by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), 119 civilians died since bombing against the Islamic State (ISIS) began in 2014, an update that now includes an additional 64 deaths between November 2015 and September 2016. Previously, CENTCOM only acknowledged 55 civilian deaths since airstrikes began”. However, outside observer groups like Amnesty International put the death count much higher, “groups such as Amnesty International, have put the death count much higher, estimating that more than 1,700—and possibly over 2,500—civilians have been killed since 2014”.
The reason we should not kill indiscriminately is because it destroys our moral high ground. If America is doing the same thing that the terrorists are doing, which is killing innocence for a geopolitical reasons, then we are no better than the people we are fighting. After these actions are taken, we can no longer call ourselves the “good guys”. Now, why is this important? Because, it deteriorates our moral standing among our own people, when they eventually find out what their military is doing with their tax dollars, and worse yet, other nations abroad are less likely to support our actions and cooperate with us in the future if we have no moral standing. Our allies in Europe, Asia, and Africa are less likely to support our actions or trust us to be good faith actors if they see how immorally we behave in foreign lands. America routinely violates international law when it suits us and it has led to a global concern over our aggressive unaccountable actions.
Morality in Carter’s Administration
Though he was brought up a Southern Baptist, which is where his moral compass was rooted, Jimmy Carter brought a secular version of morality to politics. He respected the separation of church and state; he never claimed god commands us to do this or that action; he framed his actions in a rational manner for all Americans of every faith and no faith to understand. We shall examine some of his policies that can be emulated today to make America moral again.
Unlike his predecessors, like Kissenger, Nixon, and Ford, Carter wanted to move away from the constant aggressive posture of the U.S toward the world, instead he wanted to be more open with our allies and less hostile toward “enemy” states like the Soviet Union and China, “The most obvious differences are in style and attitudes. As regards to style, the Carter Administration prides itself on being more consultative of its allies abroad and of the State Department and the bureaucracy at home – in contrast to the ‘lone ranger’ virtuosity, the ‘acrobatic stunts’ and the ‘secret deals’ of Dr Kissinger’s solo performance. As for attitudes, or perceptions, the Carter foreign policy-makers eschew the Realpolitik overtones of the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford era – the cynical attitude towards repressive but strategically important regimes” (p.418). Carter understood that being the bully on the block and having a constant aggressive posture was not the way to prosperity for America, as was demonstrated by the Vietnam War, which two administrations tried to win, but still resulted in a failure.
Carter went back to basics, he believed that the foundational values of America are key to our success in the world, these values being individual liberty (human rights), and truly transparent democracy, as Carter explained in his Notre Dame Address, “We are confident that democracy’s example will be compelling, and so we seek to bring that example closer to those from whom in the past few years we have been separated and who are not yet convinced about the advantages of our kind of life. We are confident that the democratic methods are the most effective, and so we are not tempted to employ improper tactics here at home or abroad….. And we are confident of the good sense of American people, and so we let them share in the process of making foreign policy decisions. We can thus speak with the voices of 215 million, and not just of an isolated handful”. This was a rebuttal of the undemocratic decisions made under Kissenger and Nixon, like the decision to overthrow a democratically leader in Cambodia which lead to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the “Killing Fields” and the secret bombing in Cambodia in Operation Menu. Carter also criticized the Vietnam War, which he claims, “Produced a profound moral crisis, sapping worldwide faith in our own policy and our system of life, a crisis of confidence made even more grave by the covert pessimism of some of our leaders”. He wanted a complete transition away from the era of undemocratic secret deals, and secret wars to a more peaceful, cooperative, and democratic America.
Carter’s Remedies to Contemporary Woes
America, in the last three decades, has become more undemocratic than ever before, both in our elections and in our military action. Due to influx of money in politics, America is no longer even considered a democracy, a 2014 study by researchers Gilens and Page showed that over 95% of the time congress acts in the benefit of the rich 1% over the interests of the mass of the people, because, the rich are the ones who donate millions of dollars to political campaigns and offers politicians cushy private sector jobs after they leave office. The post-presidential Jimmy Carter in 2015, while on a joint panel with Bernie Sanders, called for getting money out of politics to stop this oligarchic shift that America has taken. But even back in the 70s he argued for America standing for more than just money, “What draws us together, perhaps more than anything else, is a belief in human freedom. We want the world to know that our Nation stands for more than financial prosperity’.6 The reason that capitalism has run such a mock, to the point where it is now undermining the core democratic principles of our country, is because of the “idolatry of money”. The notion that money and material wealth is the primary avenue for happiness, therefore materialistic capitalism should prevail above all else. In reality, this is just philosophical jargon used to justify deregulation of private industry to reduce consumer protections and worker wages and increase corporate profits. What this process has led to is an escalating takeover of our public institution by private for-profit entities that undermine our freedoms and takes away basic human rights. It has also lead to the empowerment of the military industrial complex and an increased escalation toward more war.
Carter tried to fight corporate power in his own administration when he tried to introduce universal health care to America in an effort to guarantee all Americans healthcare and take power out of the insurance companies, unfortunately for us all, he failed in this effort. However, Carter’s appointee Dr. Eula Bingham, was able to get new OSHA protections passed for safer working conditions for American workers, to the dismay of many corporations, who fought hard against these protections, because they don’t even have the decency to provide their workers a safe work environment to produce their products.
So, what does corporate greed and deregulation have to do with foreign policy? Well, there is in fact a direct link. Corporate greed was a primary motive in almost every war we have fought this century, with a few exceptions, as Major General Smedley Butler said, “War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives”. This is not to say that there weren’t legitimate reasons to fight some wars; a war like WW2 was a legitimate war that needed to be fought. But, most of the wars America has fought in the last 70 years, after WW2, have been to make more profit for the military industrial complex and oil companies.
Let us begging in WW2, it has been argued by some that the real reason we came out of the depression of the 30’s was not due to FDR’s reforms, but rather, because of the military buildup that America undertook in preparation to fight the Nazis. Industrial production boomed, millions of new jobs in manufacturing of weapons were created and many arms manufacturers made a lot of money, “Between 1940 and 1945, the American state would spend no less than 185 billion dollar on such equipment, and the military expenditures’ share of the GNP thus rose between 1939 and 1945 from an insignificant 1,5 percent to approximately 40 per cent. In addition, American industry also supplied gargantuan amounts of equipment to the British and even the Soviets via Lend-Lease”.
Opponents of this point of view argue that this military buildup was necessary and that these war corporations were run by patriotic Americans, well, this becomes an untenable position considering that, “In Germany, meanwhile, the subsidiaries of American corporations such as Ford, GM, and ITT produced all sorts of planes and tanks and other martial toys for the Nazis, also after Pearl Harbor, but that is a different story”.11 If these corporations cared one bit about American supremacy over the scourge that was Fascism, why did they provide weapons to both sides? The answer is simple, and it goes back to prove General Butler’s argument correct, “In the World War 1, a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows”. The great flaw of capitalism is that it removes morality and decency from human life; everything is a commodity to be used and tossed away. Everyone is simply trying to make the most money as possible, no matter the cost to others or the world. These companies backed both sides because they didn’t care who won, all that mattered was that the war continued and they got to make more and more money from the conflict. General Butler’s solution to this problem was simple and it is to get the profit out of war. Which is easier said than done given the enormous influence of corporations over our politicians.
Carter on War
In our wars in since WW2, America has used torture, indiscriminate killing of civilians, constitutional violations of our own citizens, illegal regime change, and chemical warfare as America saw fit; we continue those tactics today. Carter explicitly warned us not to do this in his Notre Dame Address, “For too many years, we’ve been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs. We’ve fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is better quenched with water. This approach failed, with Vietnam the best example of its intellectual and moral poverty”. As mentioned before, how can we claim to be better than our enemies if we engage in the same vile acts that they do? There was a time when America acted with some moral decency, like when we gave trials to the Nazis we arrested after WW2. We could have lined them up and executed them or put them in the gas chambers of their own making, but instead we chose to preserve our values and not sink to the immoral depths of our enemies.
Today, we are doing worse things than our enemies in the hopes of victory (e.g. Abu Grebe, Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition etc.) and as Carter predicted, fighting fire with fire has led to everyone being on fire, literally. We purport to want to defeat terrorism but somehow terrorism keeps spreading all across the globe; the more money we spend propping up the military industrial complex with higher and higher defense budgets, the more wars we seem to be starting. Under the Obama administration, we were bombing seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa. It is almost like a return on investment. The more money we allocate for war, the more wars we seem to have. Could there be a connection?
So, who benefits from these wars? Not the women and children that die from drone attacks, not the American soldiers who die, lose limbs, or suffer from PTSD ruining their families, not the parents of soldiers who lose their children, and not the American people who need our government to spend those billion on education, infrastructure, and healthcare for our citizens; it’s the war corporations who reap the financial benefits of these wars. And where are the beneficial results these wars have produced for America as a nation? We went to “liberate” Iraq and they ended up with 110,000 to 460,000 dead Iraqis, and America ended up with 4,486 dead soldiers. We went to establish democracy in the Middle-East overall, but not a single country we are bombing or have invaded or election meddled in is even close to becoming a western democracy. All these factual details just confirm Carter’s criticism of interventionist American foreign policy being ill-advised, and General Butler’s argument about corporate war profiteering.
Violence begets more Violence
Although Carter himself made the mistake of becoming more militaristic to save his own presidency later on in his tenure, the sage advice from the early president Carter is the right way to approach foreign policy. The old adage that the “cycle of violence only leads to more violence” is right. Every empire in the history of mankind has fallen victim to not heeding this warning, and as a consequence, they all destroyed themselves. After we defeat ISIS a new terrorist group will pop up, then we will fight that one, and another will pop up, so on and so forth until we have wasted all our treasure and America collapses. America should not interfere militarily in business that is not our own. In the Middle East, terrorist groups should be fought by Muslim Majority countries. Unless there is a direct attack on our soil or a credible threat to kill Americans, we should not get involved. The problems in the Middle East started because the CIA, in their epic brilliance, decided to overthrow the democratically elected leader of Iran in 1954 and installed an oil corporation friendly leader in the Shah, when he tried to westernize Iran, religious Muslims felt that the West was trying to destroy their culture and fought back.
This was the beginning of the virulent strain of Islamic Terrorism we see today. Before this, other Europeans like the British drew up artificial borders and created countries in the Middle East like Iraq, for their own colonial purposes; disregarding the tribal nature of these people and only thinking from a western capitalist mindset. These tribal divisions contributed significantly to the difficulties of America to democratize Iraq. Although Islam’s inherent violent nature is a big part of how and why they commit their terrorism, western foreign policy has had a major impact in fomenting anger of the natives toward the West. This anger is not without good reason. If the CIA didn’t not carry out their regime change efforts in the Middle East, we most likely would not have gone on this path of militarism and so many lives would have been saved from terrorist attacks, including those who died on 9/11.
As Carter stated many times, peace is the way forward. Having respect for the sovereignty of other countries and not interfering unless we are directly threated is the most moral and rational way to conduct our foreign policy. Regime change does not work to bring peace, as history shows, election meddling only ends up destroying our credibility and undermining our claims about how much we love democracy. If we are ever at war, we should abide by international laws like the Geneva Convention and the UN Security Council Charter and not engage in immoral acts like torture and indiscriminate killing of innocence. We should also focus on what’s best for Americans at large instead of what’s best for the rich and corporations. We should get private corporations out of war and let the government build military weapons to prevent corporate war profiteering. These are the main changes that need to be made to American foreign policy to achieve a more peaceful and stable world.
 Gilens, M. and Page, Benjamin I. (2014) Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. Perspectives on Politics. Vol. 12/No. 3.