“I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history.”
This story from February continues to dominate the top of Commentary‘s online archive. It talks about Carter’s unexpected political ascendancy, his continued geopolitical meddling and his problem with Israel.
Carterâs frequent pronouncements on issues of the day and his free-lance diplomacyâhave had a much sharper edge. He has injected himself into several foreign crises, sometimes with the grudging acquiescence of existing U.S. administrations but sometimes in open defiance of them.
One remarkable instance grew out of Carterâs strong opposition to the use of force to reverse the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990. Not satisfied with issuing a torrent of statements and articles, he dispatched a letter to the heads of state of members of the United Nations Security Council and several other governments urging them to oppose the American request for UN authorization of military action. In this letter, writes Carterâs admiring biographer Douglas Brinkley, he urged these influential world leaders to abandon U.S. leadership and instead give âunequivocal support to an Arab League effort, without any restraints on their agenda.â If this were allowed to occur, Carter believed, an Arab solution would not only force Iraq to leave Kuwait but at long last also force Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.
The U.S. government under President George H.W. Bush learned of Carterâs missive only from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of Canada. Brent Scowcroft, Bushâs National Security Adviser, called it âunbelievableâ that Carter would âask . . . the other members of the Council to vote against his own country. . . . f there was ever a violation of the Logan Act prohibiting diplomacy by private citizens, this was it.â Later, Carter justified his action by noting that he had sent the letter to President Bush, tooâas if this disposed of Scowcroftâs point. And even that was only a half-truth. As Brinkley reports, the copy to Bush was dated a day after the letter was sent to the others.
Despite Carterâs appeal, the Security Council voted 12-2 to authorize military action, with only Cuba and Yemen taking Carterâs side. But this was not the end of the ex-Presidentâs efforts. Just days before the announced deadline for Iraq to withdrawal from Kuwait, Carter wrote to the rulers of Americaâs three most important Arab allies in the crisisâEgypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabiaâimploring them to break with Washington: âI urge you to call publicly for a delay in the use of force while Arab leaders seek a peaceful solution to the crisis. You may have to forgo approval from the White House, but you will find the French, Soviets, and others fully supportive.â This time, he did not share a copy of his appeal with his own government even after the fact.
Why, one may ask, was Carter so adamant on the point of âan Arab solutionâ? After all, the so-called âCarter doctrine,â which he had laid down in his 1980 State of the Union address in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, explicitly threatened war in circumstances similar to those created by Saddamâs naked aggression in the Persian Gulf. What, then, led him to take a different tack in this instance? Brinkleyâs gloss supplies a possible answer. It appears that Carter saw the fruits of Saddamâs aggression as providing valuable leverage against Israel that he did not want to see squandered. Why he might have been thinking in such terms is a subject to which we shall return.
It is not only Arafat whose pacifism Carter credits. Now that the PLO has been upstaged by Hamas, he finds peaceful intentions in that quarter, tooâeven in the face of Hamas denials that it adheres to any such view. Reporting credulously that âHamas would modify its rejection of Israel if there is a negotiated agreement that Palestinians can approve,â he has urged Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to forge a coalition government with this terrorist organization that is sworn to Israelâs destruction.
Hamas, Carter writes, has âmeticulously observed a cease-fire commitment,â and âsince August of 2004 [it] has not committed a single act of terrorism that cost an Israeli life.â
Ever since his presidency, there has been a wide gap between Carterâs estimation of himself and the esteem in which other Americans hold him. This has manifestly embittered him. For all his talk of âlove,â the driving motives behind his post-presidential ventures seem, in fact, to be bitterness together with narcissism (as it happens, two prime ingredients of a martyr complex). But he has worked hard to earn the reputation he enjoys. In contravention of the elementary responsibilities of loyalty for one in his position, he has denigrated American policies and leaders in his public and private discussions in foreign lands. He has undertaken personal diplomacy to thwart the policies of the men elected to succeed him. And in doing so he has, at least in the case of North Korea, actively damaged our security.
At home, Carterâs criticisms of the policies of his successors are offered up with reckless abandon. For example, when the Patriot Act and related measures curtailed the rights of defendants accused of terrorism, Carter editorialized that âin many nations, defenders of human rights were the first to feel the consequences.â The charge was simply a concoction, and not a single example was offered to substantiate it. In this manner, Carter has made himself a willing hook on which foreigners can hang their anti-American feelings. When he was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, the chairman of the committee allowed that the award âshould be interpreted as a criticism of the line that the current administration has taken. Itâs a kick in the leg to all who follow the same line as the United States.â
Carterâs special rancor toward Israel remains to some degree mysterious, as such sentiments often are, but it is likely we have not heard the last of it. As the protests and criticisms of him continue, he may well sink deeper into his sense of angry martyrdom, following the path recently trod by academics like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who fancy themselves victims of the very Jewish conspiracies they set out to expose. It is sad that a President whose cardinal accomplishment was a peace accord between Israel and one of its neighbors should have devolved into such a seething enemy of Israel. It will be sadder still if this same man, whose other achievement was to elevate the cause of human rights, ends his career by helping to make anti-Semitism acceptable once again in American discourse.