f there's one thing everyone "knows" about Jimmy Carter, it's that he's been an excellent ex-president a "model ex-president," everyone says. But some of us have to wonder, sometimes.
Carter has resurfaced in recent weeks, sounding off on the Middle East and preparing for a trip to Castro's Cuba. The 39th president is never far from the surface, of course. He has often been an irritant to his successors in the White House. He exasperated Clinton on North Korea and Haiti, and he appalled the first Bush. In the run-up to the Gulf War, as the administration was trying to assemble a coalition against Iraq, Carter sent a letter to members of the U.N. Security Council, urging them to thwart the administration's effort. Some around Washington were heard to mutter "treason."
Whatever the weather, Carter has enjoyed a reputation as a Middle East sage, owing to his role in the 1979 Camp David accords. Yet that reputation rests on shaky ground. The painful truth is, Sadat and Begin had their deal worked out before ever approaching Washington. Prof. Bernard Lewis, dean of Middle East scholars, put it this way to PBS's Charlie Rose recently: "The popular mythology is that Sadat made this enormously courageous and imaginative gesture of offering peace. . . . [Sadat and Begin] then went to the United States to discuss it further, and thanks to the wise statesmanship of Jimmy Carter and his staff, they were able to bring [their work] to a successful conclusion, to a peace treaty." Why, in fact, did the two principals ring the White House? "Well, obviously," explained Lewis, "they needed someone to pay the bill, and who but the United States could fulfill that function?"
Still, Carter is immensely proud of his rendezvous with Middle East history, and he trades on it constantly. No one should assume, however, that he's an honest broker at least anymore. For the past many years, he has been passionately anti-Israel, more or less embracing the PLO line. He has repeatedly been at the service of Yasser Arafat. After the Gulf War, the PLO chief was on the outs with Saudi Arabia, because he had backed Saddam Hussein. So he asked Carter to fly to Riyadh to smooth things over and restore Saudi funding to him which he did. Arabs are also robust funders of the Carter Center, the ex-president's redoubt and vehicle in Atlanta.
While Carter has many warm words for Arafat and for dictators around the world (as we will see shortly), he has nothing but contempt and scorn for the democratic leader in Israel, Ariel Sharon. In Carter's eyes, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not unlike the pre-civil-rights South, with the Israelis as the oppressive whites and the Palestinians as the innocent blacks. As he told his chronicler, Douglas Brinkley, "The intifada exposed the injustice Palestinians suffered, just like Bull Connor's mad dogs in Birmingham."
In their first meeting held in 1990 Carter boasted of his sternness toward Israel. For example, he said, "When I bring up the [PLO] charter, you should not be concerned that I am biased. I am much more harsh with the Israelis." Arafat, for his part, complained about the Reagan administration's alleged "betrayals." Rosalynn Carter, who was taking notes for her husband, interjected, "You don't have to convince us!" which, as Brinkley records, "elicited gales of laughter all round." The ex-president "agreed that the Reagan administration was not renowned as promise keepers" (this, to Arafat).
Later on, the parties exchanged gifts. "When Arafat presented Rosalynn with a dress for daughter Amy, decorated with Palestinian embroidery, he mentioned that he had followed Amy's political activities with great interest, especially her anti-CIA stance in Nicaragua and antiapartheid activities in South Africa." Then,
Shortly thereafter, Carter actually acted as PR adviser and speechwriter to Arafat. As Brinkley says, he "drafted on his home computer the strategy and wording for a generic speech Arafat was to deliver soon for Western ears . . ." The entire composition is nauseating, but its flavor can be captured in a single line: "Our people, who face Israeli bullets, have no weapons: only a few stones remaining when our homes are destroyed by Israeli bulldozers."
If Carter wrote Arafat's Western-ears-only speeches, Arafat could have written much of Carter's recent New York Times op-ed. The former president began by describing Arafat's 1996 "election" as a "democratic" one, "well organized, open and fair." (It was "well organized," all right.) Of course, this "election" was like any other in the Arab world, which is to say, rigged from beginning to end. As former CIA director James Woolsey told journalist Joel Mowbray recently, "Arafat was essentially 'elected' the same way Stalin was, but not nearly as democratically as Hitler, who at least had actual opponents." Arafat's "opponent" was a prop.
Carter then lit into his bogeyman, Sharon, declaring him an international outlaw whose "goals" are to "establish Israeli settlements as widely as possible throughout occupied territories and to deny Palestinians a cohesive political existence." Sharon has, in fact, accepted the concept and inevitability of a Palestinian state but he unpleasantly insists on his own country's existence and security as well.
The ex-president conceded that "there is adequate blame on the other side" meaning the Palestinian but only insofar as Arafat has failed to "exert control over Hamas and other radical Palestinians" (forgetting the many "suicide bombings" carried out by Arafat's own Al-Aqsa brigades). Carter then wrote in an excruciating sentence "[Arafat] may well see the suicide attacks as one of the few ways to retaliate against his tormentors, to dramatize the suffering of his people, or as a means for him, vicariously, to be a martyr." This comes as close to an apology for terror as a president ex- or current ever gets.
The Carter mindset on the Middle East is perhaps best illustrated by the reaction of his key aide and emissary, Mary King, to the invasion and rape of Kuwait by Iraq's Hussein in 1990. She cabled her boss, "Saddam learned from the Israelis that might makes right . . ."
In 1997, Carter wrote an op-ed piece entitled "It's Wrong to Demonize China." In it, he said, "Westerners emphasize personal freedoms, while a stable government and a unified nation are paramount to the Chinese. This means that policies are shaped by fear of chaos from unrestrained dissidents or fear of China's fragmentation. . . ." He also suggested that freedom of religion had come to China causing activists in the field, who know the horrid truth, to gnash their teeth.
Many longtime Carter-watchers don't have much hope that he will perform admirably in Cuba. He is to visit there from May 12 to May 17. Indeed, it says something not very flattering about Carter that Castro has been so eager to have him: The dictator must reason that he has little to fear from the presence of the ex-president.
Care for a quick walk down Memory Lane? Joshua Muravchik reminded us of some Carter nuggets in a 1994 piece for The New Republic. While in office, Carter hailed Tito as "a man who believes in human rights." He said of Ceausescu and himself, "Our goals are the same: to have a just system of economics and politics . . . We believe in enhancing human rights." Since leaving office, Carter has praised Syria's late Assad (killer of at least 20,000 in Hama) and the Ethiopian tyrant Mengistu (killer of many more than that). In Haiti, he told the dictator Cédras that he was "ashamed of what my country has done to your country."
While in North Korea, Carter lauded Kim Il Sung, one of the most complete and destructive dictators in history. Said Carter, "I find him to be vigorous, intelligent,...and in charge of the decisions about this country" (well, he was absolute ruler). He said, "I don't see that they [the North Koreans] are an outlaw nation." Pyongyang, he observed, was a "bustling city," where shoppers "pack the department stores," reminding him of the "Wal-Mart in Americus, Georgia."
Then there's his notorious friendship with Daniel Ortega, former strongman in Nicaragua. In 1984, when the Reagan administration was trying to put maximum pressure on Ortega to submit to democracy, Carter urged Habitat for Humanity to build in Nicaragua. A fine idea, perhaps, but here's the (classic) Carter twist: "We want the folks down there to know that some American Christians love them and that we don't all hate them." In 1990, of course, Carter traveled to Managua to monitor the elections and to certify what he figured and hoped, it seemed would be a Sandinista victory. When the democratic opposition won instead, Carter was memorably churlish, even bitter. As Kirkpatrick says, "You'd have thought a democrat would be happy."
The ex-president has a tremendous, almost mouth-watering opportunity to do good to stand for freedom and to speak the bold truth, as Reagan, for example, did in the Soviet Union. Carter has been briefed both by Cuba- democracy groups and by the State Department. He knows the names and locations of political prisoners. Cuba activists also hope that he will say something about the Varela Project, which is a petition drive allowable under Castro's "constitution" to force a referendum on whether the government should continue (after 43 undemocratic years). This was the means by which Chileans got rid of Pinochet in the late 1980s. The Varela people have more than the required number of signatures, but the Castro regime, of course, is harassing those who signed and failing to heed its own law. A word from Carter might unblock things, and electrify the nation.
But if Carter does no more than take the "standard Fidel tour" (as the activists put it), gratify his ego, and denounce U.S. policy, with the dictator applauding behind him, he will have flopped. If he endorses and spreads Castroite lies about the miracle of socialist health care and education, he will have done worse. Cuba-watchers are also interested in whether Carter and his party will stay in segregated hotels. Unknown to many outside Cuba, that island has a system of "tourism apartheid" whereby yanquis and other foreigners are put up in hotels and at resorts from which ordinary Cubans are forbidden. Castro could easily see to it that Carter encounters only loyalists to the regime; he will have to go out of his way to see, and hear, anybody else.
If Jimmy Carter is, according to image, Joe Human Rights, he couldn't have picked a better country in which to prove it. The Bush administration has given him a green light, skeptical but hoping for the best. The ex-president certainly doesn't think much of the current president. He has bashed him at every turn. Most infamously, Carter denounced Bush's identification of an "axis of evil" as "overly simplistic and counter-productive." (Not infrequently does the ex-president sound like the French foreign minister.) He added, "I think it will take years before we can repair the damage done by that statement."
Post-Carter presidents know a thing or two about repairing damage done: in Iran, Nicaragua, and other places (including, a mouthy Republican might argue, the United States). The question is, How much more damage will he do, our "model ex-president"?