“There is nothing more pathetic in life than a former president.”

— John Quincy Adams

Public fascination with what an ex-president does with his time is greater than ever. On the 22nd October, all five living former US presidents took part in a benefit concert in Texas to raise money for hurricane relief efforts. While the physical absence of current president, Donald Trump, was taken as a further indication of the gulf in class between Trump and experienced politicians, reporters were much kinder to those present.

During their times in power, these former presidents have been responsible for a collection of invasions, bombings, drone strikes and assorted nasty undercover interference in the internal politics of democratically-elected governments. None of them have been subject to any kind of hearings or court proceedings of any kind, except for Bill Clinton, who faced impeachment over a sexual incident in the Oval Office.

Recently, former US president, George W. Bush, came out of retirement to deliver a barely-indirect criticism of the current US president. He stated that the US political process “seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” which could easily be seen as a reference to Trump’s counter-intuitive labelling of fairly uncontroversial reporting as “fake news.”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that George W. twisted the knife. After all, he was forced to watch as his brother, who is at least a veteran politician, got shafted by a barely literate haircut who doesn’t even have the necessary rabble-rousing skills to be a competent fascist. Liberals everywhere rejoiced at Bush’s passive aggressive comments. Liberals with slightly longer memories were less impressed with the kindly re-assessment of a president whose biggest city was attacked by terrorists from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and who ordered invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as a response, resulting in what some have estimated as hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Do presidents get more left-wing as they get older?

In recent decades, former US president, Jimmy Carter, is more known for dispensing wisdom on gentle television shows and building homes for poor people with Habitat for Humanity. Carter is certainly much better regarded now than any time during his period of office or beforehand. In 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.” There was much less controversy over this award than, for instance, Henry Kissinger’s Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for negotiating the end of a war he helped prolong.

Two years into Carter’s presidency, in 1979, the Middle East was destabilizing even more than usual, along with most of sub-Soviet Asia. Pakistan was in the middle of a nuclear program, born of a humiliating military defeat to India in 1971, for which reason Carter leaned towards strengthening diplomatic ties which had lapsed somewhat. 

In Iran, the regime of the Shah, a CIA-backed dictator, was proving so unpopular that many were turning to the Ayatollah Khomeini to act. When the Shah was overthrown by Islamic revolutionaries in February, he was protected by the US, which refused to extradite him for his many crimes against his own people. After the crippling oil refinery strikes (protests against the Shah) of late 1978, oil exports were suspended and oil production rolled back, causing a world oil crisis. Towards the end of 1979, Islamist students took a number of hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, which initially caused people to rally behind Carter, but as the hostage crisis continued, support for his overly cautious policy towards it fell.

During 1979, Afghanistan was restructuring itself as a secular communist state, with lots help from Russia. The Islamic infrastructure was decommissioned (including banning child marriages and other tribal Islamic practices) and replaced with national programs for health and education. There was also incarceration and mass killings of political dissidents and Islamic leaders who opposed secularization and modernization. In February and March, both American and Soviet diplomatic staff were killed in separate incidents. As 1979 continued, the political situation continued to deteriorate to the point where the Soviet Union launched a messy invasion in December, ostensibly to provide support for the communist government, but they quickly found themselves mired in an endless series of almost unconnected regional scraps which continue to this day.

Carter was rolling into an election year, and knew his response to this degradation of the Middle East political situation was likely to determine his fate against the Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan. The official CIA name for Carter’s plan to deal with Afghanistan was Operation Cyclone. It mostly involved arming and training a network of native Afghan militants who held a radical Islamic ideology and called themselves the mujahedeen — or “jihad warriors.”

President Ronald Reagan

Many Muslims from different countries went to Afghanistan to assist with the jihad, and many of these people would later form members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden, who organised and funded a foreign militia. Although the CIA routinely denies that any funding specifically went to Osama bin Laden, “some analysts believe that Bin Laden himself had security training from the CIA.” Regardless of the personal involvement of Bin Laden, it is undeniable that “the CIA supported the mujahedeen by spending… billions of dollars… on buying arms, ammunition, and equipment,” according to Mohammad Yousaf, who ran the Afghan branch of the Pakistani secret service during the 1980s.

Carter’s disastrous policy was rolled out even further under Reagan, often referred to as the Reagan Doctrine. The mujahedeen were ultimately successful. In 1989, Russia withdrew from Afghanistan entirely, leaving the local warlords to fight it out among themselves. This resolution, at the risk of understatement, led to its own problems. A series of counter-productive US interventions led to the formation of Al Qaeda, a terrorist group which flooded into the power vacuums left by US military actions, and similar power vacuums twenty years later led to the formation of ISIS. 

If I were to be uncharitable and say there were a single person to blame for the current mess in the Middle East who is ultimately responsible for arming, funding and training the mujahedeen that would spin out into a network of Islamic terrorists creating chaos and havoc all over the world, I would say that person is Jimmy Carter.

It’s easy for an American president to say and do useful things after he’s stopped being president, many years after it might actually have made a difference. A compliant media might even participate in this inappropriate and counter-productive rosy-hued rehabilitation of those who would unambiguously be referred to as “war criminals” in any other context.

I call it the Jimmy Carter Effect.

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