“As health concerns for former President Carter mount,” Caleb Brown noted recently in this space, “it’s nice to be able to look back on his time in the White House and see something remarkably positive.” Indeed, our 39th president doesn’t remotely merit the bad rap he gets from conservatives and libertarians. As I wrote a few years back, “at its best, the Carter legacy was one of workaday reforms that made significant improvements in American life: cheaper travel and cheaper goods for the middle class.” For loosening controls on oil, trucking, railroads, and airlines, he should, Daniel Bier suggests, be thought of as “the Great Deregulator.” It’s in no small part thanks to him that conservatives can cry in their microbrews over the sorry state of the 2016 Republican field.
So the man from Plains has a lot to be proud of. In the coming months, I hope he’ll have the consolation of seeing the record corrected and his historical reputation start to rise.
Judging by his recent press conference announcing his illness, however, Carter shares a widely held misconception about where his presidency went wrong. Asked about his regrets, he answered: “I wish I’d sent one more helicopter to get the hostages and we would have rescued them and I would have been re-elected.” Carter was referring to “Operation Eagle Claw,” the aborted Iranian hostage rescue attempt in April 1980. If you’re old enough, you probably remember: the operation never got past the initial “Desert One” rendezvous point, due to the mechanical failure of three helicopters, and eight US soldiers were killed during departure when a helicopter collided with a transport plane.
The botched rescue attempt definitely contributed to Carter’s defeat. But the mission failed during the “easy” part; when you look at what was supposed to come next, it’s hard not to think the whole operation would have been the Bay of Pigs meets Black Hawk Down.
Writing in the Air & Space Power Journal in 2006, war gaming professor Charles Tustin Kamps observed that “the things which did cause the mission to abort were probably merciful compared to the greater catastrophe which might have taken place if the scenario had progressed further than the Desert One rendezvous.” “In the realm of military planning there are plans that might work and plans that won’t work,” Kamps writes, “In the cold light of history it is evident that the plan for Eagle Claw was in the second category.” It would have required “the proverbial seven simultaneous miracles” to succeed.