ONE of the few points of agreement between the two parties in the presidential campaign is that Jimmy Carter was an inept president. Democrats fear to even utter the dreaded ``C-word,'' and Republican rhetoric resembles that of communists, with its constant reiteration of an equivalent of ``Before the Revolution....'' Indeed, during the recent televised debate, George Bush made a specific claim of a superior foreign policy during the Reagan years. A closer look at the records of Mr. Carter and Ronald Reagan suggests that some reevaluation is in order. For example, since the Marshall Plan, three outstanding foreign policy initiatives have greatly eased political tensions and furthered world peace.
One was the normalization of US relations with China. Achieved under Richard Nixon, it has given him a reputation as a foreign policy expert that his overall record does not support.
The two other initiatives were the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and the Panama Canal treaties. Each accomplishment served to heal long-festering disputes that had caused violence and threatened more at any moment. President Carter was personally involved in both negotiations and deserves primary credit for their fruition. The Middle East and Central America remain troubled regions, but as a measure of the significance of Carter's legacy, try to imagine conditions in each area without the treaties.
Should the US-Soviet mutual missile reduction agreement be concluded successfully as planned, it clearly would be a fourth major reduction in tensions attributable to a US presidential initiative. The sequence of events, however, suggests that not all credit accrues to Mr. Reagan. Most observers attribute the change in Soviet attitude to the new presence of US medium-range and cruise missiles in Europe. Certainly Reagan's determined actions in the installation were essential, but they served merely to complete a program planned and negotiated by the Carter administration.
Indeed, nearly all of Reagan's success in foreign policy has consisted of continuations of policies formulated under Jimmy Carter.
After all, it was a Carter doctrine that declared the Gulf an area of US strategic significance and gave a purpose to a US naval presence there. And after about three years of floundering, Reagan's adoption of Carter's human rights policy (under the semantic guise of promoting democracy) has put the United States again on the side of decency in the worldwide movement toward greater personal freedom. Reagan and Mr. Bush delight in pointing to the spread of elective government in Latin America during their tenure in office. But Latin Americans understand well that the process was stimulated by Carter. During his tour of the new democracies in fall 1985, Jimmy Carter was given the warmest greetings ever accorded in the region to a US elective official.
The fiasco of the Soviet brigade in Cuba embarrassed Carter, but it did cause him to increase electronic surveillance of the region and create the Caribbean Joint Task Force. Both were vital to planning and completing Reagan's ``triumphal'' incursion in Grenada.
Even the much-touted United States military buildup during the 1980s had earlier origins. Except for two modernized World War II battleships (56,000-ton coffins in a modern war), the new US weapons deployed as late as spring 1985 were nearly all planned, authorized, and, many of them, under construction during the Carter years.
Campaign oratory has a partisan purpose and a certain momentum of its own. One cannot fault the Republicans for a strategy that serves their cause. Yet somehow it seems as if the collective public (media) memory should have a shelf life of at least a decade. This brief account is hardly comprehensive, but it does call attention to recent history that is important to an understanding of America's role in the world.
Although presidents come and go, there has been identifiable consistency in US foreign policy. A number of welcome changes have occurred in the world during the Reagan era, but to trash Carter as a failure in foreign affairs reflects either ignorance or a calculated effort to deceive. Despite much posturing, Reagan changed little of substance from the Carter programs.
Regardless of who wins the November election, he will do little to alter the established continuity of policies.