Profiles in Courage, the Jimmy Carter Edition

I’m fairly sure that Jimmy Carter is the bravest man I know. I’m absolutely sure that he’s the bravest politician.

When it comes to courage, Carter’s polar opposite is Mitt Romney. Scour Romney’s record for a single example of real political courage -- a single, solitary instance, however small, where Romney placed principle or substance above his own short-term political interests. Let me know if you find one.

“Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order,” Romney sneered recently, belittling President Barack Obama’s role in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Would have given? No, Mr. Romney. Gave. Jimmy Carter gave that order -- 32 years ago.

Everything you can say in praise of Obama’s courage in ordering Operation Neptune Spear, as the Navy Seal raid on bin Laden was code-named -- and Obama deserves plenty of praise -- goes double for Carter’s courage in ordering Operation Eagle Claw, the Delta Force mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran on April 24, 1980.

Both were highly secret, elite commando operations deep inside less-than-friendly territory at a time of tension between the U.S. and Islamist extremism. Both were painstakingly designed and rehearsed to achieve a difficult and long-sought goal in a surgical manner, with as little “collateral damage” to innocent civilians as possible. In both cases, the commander-in-chief gave the green light despite dissent within his inner circle of advisers. In neither case was there any guarantee of success -- or even a better-than-even chance.

Operation Eagle Claw

The Iran mission was actually riskier. Snatching 52 imprisoned Americans alive from a guarded building in the middle of a hostile nation’s teeming capital city is a taller order than killing one man in a residential suburban compound in a country controlled by a nominally allied, if untrustworthy, government.

But the biggest difference, of course, is that while Neptune Spear was a resounding success, Eagle Claw was a failure. When a sandstorm disabled three of the eight helicopters, the Delta Force commander asked for permission to abort, evacuate and try again another day. Carter agreed. Then, as the evacuation proceeded, a helicopter and a transport plane collided, leaving eight servicemen dead in the wreckage, blowing our cover and preventing a second attempt.

You can say Carter and the Delta Force were unlucky. You can’t say they weren’t brave and daring, any more than you can say that about Obama and the Seals.

But Eagle Claw wasn’t the only example of Carter’s courage as president. Here are three others, among many:

Camp David. The 1978 summit and subsequent shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Egypt culminated in the only Middle East peace treaty to stand the test of time. When Carter was considering the summit and even after he announced it, just about every foreign-policy guru, Henry Kissinger included, counseled against it. The “wise men” warned that a head of state should never go into a negotiation without knowing the outcome in advance. Carter rejected that advice -- and did more to further the security of Israel than any U.S. president before or since.

The Panama Canal. Although it had long been known that the Canal Zone would have to be transferred to Panama once the original lease expired, presidents from John F. Kennedy to Gerald Ford had seen this as a politically toxic problem to be tackled in a second term -- or left to a successor. Carter knew that failing to resolve it promptly could precipitate chaos and armed conflict in Central America. He put his prestige on the line, recruited bipartisan support for a new treaty and, with the help of Senator Howard Baker, the Republican Minority Leader, mustered the necessary two-thirds vote for Senate ratification.

(Ronald Reagan charged that “giving away” the canal would threaten U.S. national security, but once he was president, he did nothing about it. Apparently the threat was not so serious, after all.)

Hitting the Kremlin

Soviet aggression. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Carter imposed a grain embargo, alienating corn growers on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. He also boycotted the Moscow Olympics, upsetting millions of sports fans and angering a major television network. These steps were politically costly. But they hit the Kremlin where it hurt and, in tandem with Carter’s human-rights drive and his aid to the Afghan resistance, they pushed Soviet communism toward eventual collapse.

The list goes on. Carter blocked many unnecessary armaments boondoggles, including a superfluous, wildly costly nuclear aircraft-carrier program. He appointed Paul Volcker to the Federal Reserve chairmanship, knowing full well that while Volcker’s fiscal policies would conquer inflation, the short-term economic pain they entailed would damage Carter’s chances for re-election. He defied the oil lobby to push through a comprehensive energy program that -- had it not been gutted by his successor -- would have cut oil imports from the Middle East almost to zero by the start of the new century.

Like all presidents, Carter sometimes compromised, sometimes made tactical retreats, sometimes horse-traded. But when the chips were down, he did what was right for the country’s future, regardless of the consequences for himself.

Romney has shown no such conviction, no such courage and no such strength. His campaign has been an exercise in feeble appeasement. The only thing he appears to be dedicated to is abasing himself to the hard-right wing of the Republican Party. Consider the way he allowed a foreign-policy spokesman to be drummed out of the campaign simply for being gay.

Carter recently said that although he supports Obama for re-election, he would be “comfortable” with Romney in the White House.

Sorry, Mr. President, I disagree with you. (It has happened before.) Romney flunks the character test. He seems incapable of making the hard, sometimes unpopular, choices that are part of the job.

(Gerald Rafshoon, a film and television producer, was White House communications director for President Jimmy Carter. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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    Gerald M Rafshoon at

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