TWIB: Failed Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Editors’ note: This week, following President Obama’s recent “We don’t have a strategy yet” gaffe, we turn to WFB’s take on the foreign policy of a different president. As part of his syndicated column called On the Right, Buckley wrote the following piece with the title “Now Do You Understand?” and with a bit of his usual wit. Originally published on August 22, 1980, this piece criticizes President Carter for trying to resolve the hostage crisis in Iran by appealing to the Ayatollah through none other than Muammar Qaddafi.

We’ve added in some links for a few other figures as well. Take a look. 

Let’s see now. As these words are written, Carter has contradicted himself twice, Civiletti has contradicted himself once, Brzezinski and Rosalynn have done a pas de deux in the Rose Garden in the moonlight, Jody has denounced third-rate accusations, Jimmy has cabled the Shah’s widow offering condolences while carefully omitting any word of praise for the late Shah, whose departure was hailed by his benevolent successors in Iran as the end of the “bloodsucker,” in a statement that included the reiteration of Iranian resolve to keep the hostages, whose term of captivity we forgot because Walter Cronkite wasn’t on last night, and the Democrats, or most Democrats, are preparing to renominate for re-election the incumbent President about whom the most that can be said was said by Henry Kissinger keynoting the Republican convention in Hartford over the weekend, to wit that President Carter delivered his first foreign-policy address to the American people wearing a sweater, which at least proves that he pulled the wool over his own eyes before going on to do it to the rest of us. Have I forgotten anything?

Yes. It is the extraordinary turn of the mind that persuaded the President of the United States last November and December to think to appeal to the Ayatollah through the good offices of Qaddafi of Libya. It is altogether stranger than fiction.

The ten-year dictatorship of Qaddafi is a tribute to the longevity of madmen. Although to say that Qaddafi is mad is to reach out for a charitable explanation of his behavior. He has made his country the principal sanctuary of terrorists. To his shores he has welcomed the killers of the Israeli athletes, hijackers, assassins, torturers, executioners. It was to Libya that Idi Amin went, after Libyan attempts to save his regime failed.

Now it transpires that on November 18, 1979, President Carter resolved to appeal to the Ayatollah to release our hostages through the good offices of—Qaddafi. It was bad enough to send Ramsey Clark to Tehran, but to ask the besotted Billy to ask the Libyan Chargé to ask Qaddafi to ask the Ayatollah kindly to release fifty American diplomats suggests a structural incompetence in our foreign policy. Qaddafi paused over this suggested initiative, and then his agents sacked and burned our embassy in Tripoli. The President, having contacted the Libyan government not through his own Chargé in Libya (Secretary Vance knew nothing about all this) but through a paid lobbyist for the Libyan government, called in the Libyan representative in Washington to thank him for sending the same message to Khomeini that every other government, including the Soviet Union’s, had sent, urging the hostages’ release. What surely caught the attention of Khomeini was not that Libya routinely signed the same petition every other government signed, but that the United States was depending so heavily on a country of two million people presided over by the fanatical godfather of worldwide terrorism, to appeal to the saner instincts of the Ayatollah; which, in any case, remain elusive to this moment.

The chronology is, to say the least, bewildering. On November 18 Mr. Carter asks Brzezinski to contact Billy. On November 20, Brzezinski does so, requesting Billy to arrange a meeting with a senior diplomat at the Libyan embassy. On November 27, Brzezinski meets with said Libyan and Billy. One week later, the President himself calls in the Libyan to thank him—notwithstanding that on December 2, the Libyans had ransacked our embassy. A day or two after Carter’s thanking the Libyan, his State Department suspends our representation in Libya. Five days after that, Qaddafi withdraws his threat to suspend oil shipments to the United States, on the ground that the re-election of Carter will bring closer relations.

It is one thing for the President to send out a circular letter to all chiefs of state urging group action on behalf of international rectitude. Another to operate through a lobbyist, the object of bilateral patronage, in that the government of Libya is trying to keep Billy rich, while the government of the United States is trying to keep Billy out of jail. Perhaps the Senate investigating committee will agree to pay the government of Libya $200,000 to take Billy and keep him on some reservation over there. This would no doubt be proclaimed as a triumph of Carter’s diplomacy, and why not, there being no others that come readily to mind?


Buckley, Wm. F. “Now Do You Understand?” National Review 32, no. 17 (August 22, 1980): 1040–1041. The National Review Archive, EBSCOhost (accessed August 30, 2014).