A second look at the famous miscast vote in the United Nations points the finger of blame squarely at Jimmy Carter. But an insight that goes far beyond blame emerges from the willingness of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to be the public fall guy. It is that the qualities of Carter combine with the qualities of Vance to achieve truly bad results for everybody.
A glaring -- and unresolved -- contradiction came to the surface in the U.N. vote. The Security Council resolution implied that Jerusalem was territory occupied by Israel and that Israel was obliged to dismantle all settlements on occupied territory. The Arabists at the State Department and the Third World Firsters at the United Nations believe that should be U.S. policy.
But President Carter has opposed both positions repeatedly and, most important, in the Camp David agreements that brought the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty. That is why the White House had to disown the vote cast for the resolution at the United nations.
That conflict should have been caught by the most elementary staff work. But an original decision to abstain on the resolution was modified at a breakfast meeting of the president and his principal foreign policy advisers. There was no staff present, and the participants are unsure as to exactly what was decided. Thereafter, all the work was done by telephone among Carter, Vance and Vance's subordinates.
So the staff of the National Security Council was cut out entirely. Domestic political advisers came into the picture only after the U.N. vote. dThey insisted, largely for political reasons, that Carter repudiate the vote. The result was the worst of all possible worlds -- a sense of betrayal for Israel and the American Jewish community and a sense of presidential impotence for the Palestinians, the Arabs and most of the rest of the world.
Carter's responsibility in all that runs deep. He is the one who likes to do detailed business himself with a handful of top aides as if the past didn't exist. He is the one whose mind has the special faculty of marrying opposites and who maintains as his most intimate advisers persons with a flair for operating off the wall. He is the one who separates foreign from domestic business and who maintains an NSC staff without clout. Thus the system that produced the goof was his lengthened shadow.
High irony characterizes the willingness of Vance to take the rap. As a lawyer and government official, he has always been distinguished for orderly preparation of large and complicated matters. His chief skills are organizational. He is Mr. Tidy, and the last thing anyone familiar with Vance could easily imagine is responsibility for a managerial blunder. So it is a question as to why Vance covered for Carter the faults he is least likely to commit himself or tolerate in others.
The answer, I think, lies in an extroardinary rapport between the ideas accumulated by Vance during his years in the liberal establishment of New York and the position Carter develops by communing with his God. Vance believes in his head what Carter feels in his heart.
Vance believes, and Carter feels, that an arms accord with Russia is the most important business before the world. Vance believes, and Carter feels, that the United States must accommodate a great revolution sweeping the Third World. Vance believes, and Carter feels, that uncompromisingly radical regimes in Cuba, Libya, Ethiopia, Iran and Vietnam can be brought around through a discussion of their grievances. Vance believes, and Carter feels, that many regimes friendly to the United States are not good enough for Washington. Vance believes, and Carter feels, that military power has almost no utility in this affair.
Because the secretary's ideas fit the president's emotions, Vance panders to Carter's worst instincts. He doesn't insist on a disciplined, interconnected foreign policy. He encourages the president to do whatever the president feels is right. Hence the disjointed, almost incoherent character of American foreign policy.
Inevitably, the other principal figures in the national security community suffers badly. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown is a scientist at home with techinical problems. He instinctively defers to Vance on messy, political issues. As a result, he is probably the least visible Pentagon chief of recent times, and he has not even been able to hold the president to recent commitments on the military budget.
The president's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, has a coherent view of the world that includes a realization that there are powers of darkness abroad. He is prone to assert himself in impetuous and highly emotional ways. But set against Vance's utopianism, Brzezinski's realism, especially toward the Soviet Union, stamps him as a vertible genius. So he continues to sound the high rhetorical note, and he thrives on opposition to the State Department.
I do not mean to make Vance the evil genius of American foreign policy. Carter is. But the Carter-Vance chemistry makes matters worse -- much worse.