Much bad can be said about former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. During his four years in the White House the American economy hit rock bottom, international crises lingered on unresolved and the commander-in-chief himself became the butt of many, a joke at home and abroad. But now, over a quarter century after he lost reelection to Ronald Reagan, Carter seems to have more political courage than the current Republican administration.
Contrary to what most people believe, including presidential contenders, you can achieve more when you are no longer the president of the only world superpower. Joining the club of “formers” entitles you to many privileges that as the incumbent you could only dream of. There are no constituencies that you constantly have to pander to; no big donors hoping for meaty positions in the administration, or, as the last resort, for ambassadorships in Europe. Think of Richard Nixon, who successfully embarked on his world peace crusade only after being ousted from the White House. It took him years to win general acclaim, something he was unable to do as the president.
Jimmy Carter was a poor president. Even hardcore Democrats after four years of his rule had had enough of him and cast their votes for conservative Ronald Reagan. His overblown Social Security expenses brought the federal budget on the brink of collapse. Inflation had reached one of its highest levels ever; gas prices jumped with scaring regularity. Carter’s foreign policy was a weird mixture of Nixon’s real politik and McGovern’s naive idealism. Constant brawls between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski blocked any attempts to restore confidence in American diplomacy at home and abroad. Although Carter managed to force Egypt and Israel to sign a peace treaty in the last year of his presidency, the Middle East still remained a highly fragile region.
Criticized for his indecisiveness while president, citizen Carter reinvented himself as a vigorous human rights fighter. Soon after leaving the White House, he established the Carter Center which played a major role in many humanitarian actions, such as numerous missions to Latin America and Africa. Carter traveled to Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Empire and to South Africa to support Nelson Mandela in his presidential campaign in 1994. The culmination of Carter’s human rights crusade was the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize that he received for “decades of work seeking peaceful solutions and promoting social and economic justice.”
Far from being controversial as president, Carter has stirred up controversy as an independent envoy. Violating the years of unwritten consensus that American politicians do not meet with Cuban authorities – which President Carter himself respected and enforced – citizen Carter not only met with Fidel Castro in 2002, but also addressed Cubans in their native language on regime television. Two years later, he was one of the few international observers during a controversial referendum in Venezuela that upheld Hugo Chavez in office. Carter and his aids stated that “the results [of the referendum] were accurate.” Remaining aloof from national politics, Carter nevertheless angered the Bush Administration, accusing it of leading to war with Saddam Hussein based “upon lies and misinterpretations.”
What hurts the incumbent administration the most, however, has been Carter’s continuous effort to bring peace to the Israelis and Palestinians. For President George W. Bush, the Middle East has become as political an issue as personal. With the quagmire in Iraq and a complicated situation with Iran, a working peace agreement between Israel and Palestine is the last chance for Bush to keep his crumbling legacy in one piece. But by refusing to deal with Hamas, a terrorist organization but also the only real political power in Palestine, the president and his neo-conservative clique effectively minimize hopes for, if not peace, than at least a ceasefire.
Much to the annoyance of the Bush Administration and fury of the Israeli government, Jimmy Carter met with Hamas leaders this weekend. The talks were held in Syria and Egypt since Israel had refused to let Carter in the Gaza Strip which is under Israeli occupation. As one source told the Reuters news agency, the former president “asked Meshaal [one of the Hamas representatives] to adopt more flexible public statements and talked to him as a leader of a national liberation movement, not as the terrorist Israel and America try to depict him as being.” It does not mean, however, that Carter can see only one side of the conflict. At the same meeting, he told Hamas to repudiate suicide bombings in Israel and finally recognize the right of the Jewish state to existence. In essence, Carter’s mission was to secure Israel’s interests while at the same time talking radical Hamas into more peaceful policy.
In the following days Jimmy Carter is scheduled for a meeting with Israeli authorities. Guessing from how his latest book – “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid” – was received, it is doubtful that the former president will be welcomed as warmly as the incumbent resident of the White House. But despite the critique that falls on Carter from both sides of the political scene, his mission has already borne fruits. The British “Guardian” wrote on Sunday that “an Israeli cabinet minister offered to meet high-level Hamas officials to ask for the release of a soldier being held by Hamas.” If this meeting materializes, it would be an important step towards establishing full diplomatic relations.
It doesn’t take the president of the world power to be an effective diplomat.
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