"You want to screw up your economy? Screw up your government."
"The world community knows the basic principles of a solution. The Arab countries unanimously—all twenty-two of them—have publicly announced that they would recognize Israel diplomatically and economically if Israel will withdraw from the Palestinian-occupied territories and implement the basic United Nations resolutions. It will take a lot of influence—strong influence—from the United States to make both sides come to that point."I recently got to observe Jimmy Carter in action. I attended a global conference on the public’s right to information at the Carter Center in Atlanta at the end of February. I was there for the full three days, and saw Carter intimately participate in the conference. Looking much older than the President I remembered from my childhood, Carter still attended to the details, and was involved in a number of sessions. He even suggested a few amendments for the final declaration to emerge from the conference.
His work through the Carter Center has cemented his reputation for having perhaps the best post-Presidency ever in U.S. history. From conflict resolution and election monitoring to fighting disease and defending human rights, the Carter Center has done substantial work on a number of fronts in its twenty-five years of existence. Carter’s latest book, Beyond the White House: Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope, is a chronicle of the various efforts that Carter has spearheaded since leaving office. And at the age of eighty-three, he still maintains a hectic schedule. Whether it’s traveling to the Middle East as part of a peace mission with Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson or heading to Nepal to monitor elections in that country, he stays involved.
Such post-Presidential endeavors helped Carter get the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, even as the Nobel Committee acknowledged his Presidential accomplishments such as the Camp David Accords and the Panama Canal Treaty.
Carter has refused to observe the self-imposed code of silence that has prevented other ex-Presidents from criticizing the policies of the incumbent. He has been particularly critical of the Iraq War, opposing it from before its start and calling it “a war based on lies.”
But Carter hasn’t stopped there. On subjects ranging from North Korea and Cuba to Israel/Palestine and global warming, he has taken public positions that are very much at variance with Bush’s, describing the Bush Administration’s foreign policy as “the worst in history.”
Carter has faced the most intense criticism in recent years for his penultimate book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Fourteen members of the Carter Center’s advisory board resigned in protest. Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said Carter “was engaging in anti-Semitism.” Democratic Party leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean, and John Conyers distanced themselves from the book.
But Carter’s reputation remains intact. It has been helped along by director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), who shadowed Carter during his book tour to make Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains, released a few months ago and just out on DVD.
At the right to information conference, Carter was in fine form. The Bush Administration has classified more secrets than any other in U.S. history, Carter stated in his speech at the opening session, pointing out that even ex-Presidents are constrained by this regime of secrecy from declassifying papers pertaining to their own Presidencies. “I look forward to more freedom from January onward,” Carter said. At the closing session, Carter remarked that “under the present Administration, the [penchant for secrecy] has gone to extremes. They’re putting a secret stamp on almost every paper they can find.” Carter then went on to mock Dick Cheney for the Vice President’s assertion, in an attempt to keep his papers secret, that he belongs to both the legislative and the executive branch.
As soon as the conference ended, I was whisked into his office for an interview while the Secret Service waited outside. The office, tastefully stacked with knick-knacks and mementoes, overlooks a garden and a pond. Carter and I sat on adjacent sofas. He was pleasant and warm and exhibited flashes of his memorable smile during the interview. He answered questions precisely and genially in that famous soft Southern lilt of his. “I’ve heard good things about this periodical,” he said when I gave him copies of The Progressive as we bade farewell.
Q: How has the post-Presidency been different from your Presidential years?
Jimmy Carter: I don’t think they would be comparable. As the President for four years, I was commander in chief of a massive military. I had three million people working under me in different ways in the U.S. government structure. I had authority to help pass laws and to negotiate treaties. I don’t have any of these authorities now, and I don’t need them.
My life since the White House has been much more all-encompassing, much more enjoyable. The main thing that I’ve acquired in the last twenty-seven years has been access to the poorest and most destitute, forgotten, and suffering people on Earth. It’s not possible for a President to actually know them. But we go into the remote areas of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and actually meet with people who are suffering and find out why. Then we try to work with them, giving them maximum responsibility for correcting their own problems. So that’s the element that’s been most beneficial to me.
Q: You’ve been known as an advocate of human rights. Have the policies of the current Administration made this more difficult?
Carter: I would say more necessary. What’s been done in the last seven years is embarrassing to an American. What we have done through our own government is to torture prisoners, to deprive them of their basic rights to legal counsel, even the right of prisoners to be acquainted with the charges against them. Those kinds of things have been cherished as basic principles of American law and American policy for more than 200 years. To have them subverted and abandoned and condemned is just a travesty of justice and a very serious embarrassment to those of us who—as Americans and non-Americans—are committed to human rights.
Q: As someone who brokered the Camp David Accords, what are your thoughts on the November Annapolis Middle East conference?
Carter: I had hopes that something would come of it. So far, nothing has happened. The situation in the Holy Land—in Palestine and Israel—has not been substantially improved. The Palestinian community has been deliberately divided, one part from another, with support from both the United States and Israel. I don’t see any substantive talks taking place with United States involvement. On occasion, I think every couple of weeks or something like that, the prime minister of Israel meets with the leader of the Palestinian community, Mahmoud Abbas. But, so far as I know, they are not making any progress. I hope that will change.
Q: What should be done?
Carter: I don’t think there’s any way for them to make substantive progress without strong influence and support and attention from the United States of America. So far as I know, the United States has not participated in any of those discussions.
The world community knows the basic principles of a solution. It’s all been written out. The Arab countries unanimously—all twenty-two of them—have publicly announced that they would recognize Israel diplomatically and economically, if Israel will withdraw from the Palestinian-occupied territories and implement the basic United Nations resolutions.
It will take a lot of influence—strong influence—from the United States to make both sides come to that point.
Q: You’ve worked a lot on preventable diseases and have advocated a substantial increase in U.S. foreign aid. What would it take to eradicate diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria?
Carter: That’s one area where the Bush Administration has done a good job. President Bush has certainly advocated a dramatic increase of development assistance, particularly dealing with AIDS and malaria and, maybe, tuberculosis, and I’m very proud of that. As you know, standards have been raised for every rich country in the world to give a certain portion of their gross national product to developmental assistance. We haven’t yet reached the point that Norway and Sweden and Denmark and other countries have reached, but I think we’ve made good progress in the last few years.
Q: You made a famous trip to Cuba in 2002. With the resignation of Fidel Castro, Cuba is at a turning point. What should U.S. policy toward Cuba be now?
Carter: I would like to see the next Administration in January 2009 take the same steps that I took when I became President.
I immediately lifted all restraints on travel to and from Cuba. I began to ease off on the very punitive economic embargo against the Cuban people, and we established the first phase of full diplomatic relations with Cuba with an interest section in Havana and Washington. Those offices are still there.
So I would hope that the next Administration would do this.
As a matter of fact, a majority of the members of the House and Senate are in favor of lifting travel restraints and easing the terms of the embargo. But they haven’t seen the necessity of passing legislation because a Bush veto is certain. They don’t have enough votes to override a veto. I think that with the next President—whether it is Republican or Democratic—they’ll have a good chance to do that.
Q: Any comments on the Democratic primary?
Carter: I’ll be glad when we have our choice made. We have two outstanding candidates, and they are very close in the number of delegates they have and in the number of votes they’ve had. I am a superdelegate, and I’ve refrained from expressing a preference between the two.
But I’ll be going to the convention in Denver, and I will be trying to make sure that the candidate we choose is not only the best person to be the President but will also be the kind of person who can hold our country together.
Amitabh Pal is the managing editor of The Progressive.