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The limits of victory: the ratification of the Panama Canal treaties.

George D. Moffett III, an historian, served as an assistant to Hamilton Jordan on the White House staff from 1978 to 1981. In this useful book he analyzes the Carter administration's 1977 struggle to win ratification of the Panama Canal treaties. He argues that the fight contributed to both the rise of the New Right and the dawn of the Reagan era.

The Panama Canal had come to be regarded as an irritant in our relations with Latin America; both Republican and Democratic presidents had negotiated with Panama to write a new treaty. It fell to Jimmy Carter to complete the negotiations in his first year in office and then to seek Senate ratification. Another president might have seen this for the no-win situation it was and made either a token effort or a backroom deal. Carter decided to make it the occasion to unveil a new foreign policy for America after Vietnam.

That policy, according to Moffett, emerged from a curious alliance of Democratic liberals and multinational corporate executives, meeting in places like the Trilateral Commission. They believed that after detente the Soviet Union was less important to U.S. interests than the newly assertive countries of the Third World. Carter took office as an adherent to this view, ignoring the military and ideological issues of U.S.-Soviet relations. The Canal treaties would both introduce the new American policy and lay the groundwork for future shifts.

However, as Moffett demonstrates, the "Canal give-away" met with vigorous opposition. Public discontent with the decline of U.S. hegemony, to which the new policy was a response, was focused on the Canal by Ronald Reagan in the 1976 campaign, when he attacked a Kissinger agreement that laid the basis for Carter's treaties. Reagan's position--"We built it, we paid for it, it's ours"--touched a nerve in the public. A year later, a group of then-unknown young conservatives--Richard Viguerie, Kevin Phillips, Paul Weyrich, and Terry Dolan, among others--capitalized on that public reaction to unify the scattered forces of a new conservatism. On The other side, few interest groups were willing to fight for the treaties. Carter won the battle for what Moffett calls his "policy without a constituency," but the cost was high. He had no political capital left for future battles, such as the one over SALT II, and he had created the enemy that would destroy him, as the conservative opposition became the foundation of the New Right.

Moffett sees Carter as a victim of bad timing and poor public relations. Portrayed in this story, however, is a president without such leadership qualities as: eloquence, passion, conviction, clarity of thought and purpose, or even the basic political sense of when a battle is not worth waging. Carter was never quite able to explain the new policy or his vision--if he had one--of the American role in the world.
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Author:Rayfield, Gordon
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1985
Words:479
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