If you placed all the American presidents one on top of the other according to stature, James Earl Carter would be near the bottom. So say continuing polls—as the former occupant of the White House is well aware. Thus his continuing attempts to refurbish a pocked reputation: volunteering to negotiate disputes among nations, founding the Carter Center to aid in conflict resolution, and heading Habitat for Humanity, an organization that builds homes for the poor. Clearly, this is a man desperately seeking a Nobel Prize.
Yet every time he goes down the rehab road, the same obstacle gets in his way: Jimmy Carter himself. Given the catastrophic economic, geopolitical, and moral failures of his own administration, one might expect the man to maintain a decent silence. But no. Last week in the Washington Post, the 39th president took it upon himself to criticize the 43rd—not his first kvetch about Bush’s policies. Carter, recall, swiftly condemned the “Axis of Evil” speech as “overly simplistic” and “counter-productive.” But it wasn’t until the Post op-ed that Jimmy revealed himself in all his two dimensions.
Carter’s screed, “The Troubling New Face of America,” accuses Bush of ignoring or condoning “abuses in nations that support our anti-terrorism effort while detaining American citizens as ‘enemy combatants.’” How has this happened? According to the writer, “A core group of conservatives . . . are trying to realize long-pent-up ambitions under the cover of the proclaimed war against terrorism”—ambitions like suspending the right to legal counsel and flexing America’s military muscle. And for no justifiable reason at all, for “there is no current danger to the United States from Baghdad.” “Tragically,” he goes on, “our government is abandoning any sponsorship of substantive negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. Our apparent policy is to support almost every Israeli action and to condemn and isolate the Palestinians.” Carter ends his snit with a laundry list of recommendations: “It is crucial that the historical and well-founded American commitments prevail: to peace, justice, human rights, the environment and international cooperation.” Unaccountably, neither Mom nor apple pie was on the list.
But then we can’t expect Jimmy Carter to remember everything. He seems to have forgotten, for example, that his own foreign policy made him the world’s Number One dupe of dictators. He let Fidel Castro snooker him into accepting as refugees to our shores thousands of common criminals. He offered no resistance to (and indeed sometimes encouraged) the totalitarian governments of Nicaragua and North Korea. Worse still, Carter practically wore a KICK ME sign when negotiating with the Soviet Union, who took his feeble Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with a grain of SALT.
He was especially indulgent, though, to dictatorships in the Middle East. During the Carter years, OPEC grew in power and influence. Between 1978, the year when the Shah of Iran fell, and 1979, oil prices rocketed upward more than 50 percent, triggering double-digit inflation in the U.S. Rather than criticize the emirs and sheiks who profited mightily, Jimmy instead took after America’s “profligate, energy-wasting wasteful life-style.” We needed to moderate the bad habits of capitalism with conservation—“The Moral Equivalent of War” (appropriate acronym: MEOW).
Also left unmentioned in his essay were the events of November 4, 1979, when Iranian “students” invaded the American embassy in Teheran and took hostages. Although the Islamist captors later confessed that they expected their gesture to be short-lived—they assumed a muscular U.S. response—Carter did nothing. His lack of action emboldened radical terrorist groups in the Middle East, which now began to think that the U.S. was a clueless, impotent giant. Had he instantly demanded release of our hostages, on pain of reducing the city of Qum to ashes, he might have spared the world 30 years of hijacking and terrorism. The Commander-in-Chief finally stirred in 1980, ordering a rescue mission against the advice of his own Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance. Three of eight helicopters were damaged in a sandstorm and the operation aborted—but not before eight soldiers lost their lives. Cyrus Vance resigned. These messages, too, weren’t lost on the terror merchants, who gleefully watched the hostages held for a total of 444 days, before their release on the Inauguration Day of Ronald Reagan, who had beaten Carter in a humiliating landslide.
Carter’s dictator-coddling has continued since he left office. Carter has helped to strengthen the Haitian dictatorship, while finding many reasons to excoriate the Middle East’s only democracy. Though the ex-president has no use for suicide bombers, he clearly detests Ariel Sharon for past and present policies. “His rejection of all peace agreements included Israeli withdrawals of from Arab lands, his provocative visit to the Temple Mount, the destruction of villages and homes, the arrests of thousands of Palestinians.”
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that, according to one recent report, some of the Carter Center’s major financial contributors include His Majesty Sultan Qaboss bin Said Al Said of Oman; the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; the Government of the United Arab Emirates; and Prince Moulay Hicham Ben Abdallah of Morocco. Then again, maybe not. In any case, Carter’s gripes about the Bush administration have led some to characterize him as “a bitter and jealous one-term has-been,” pilloried by historians and common folk, and ignored by his own party. This is inaccurate. As the record shows, Carter is not a has-been at all. He is a never-was. The adjectives, however, fit like a well-tailored burnoose.