Amateur historians like to say that Jimmy Carter is much better as an ex-president than he was as president. That gets his presidency about right; he’s usually ranked near the bottom, slightly ahead of Millard Fillmore but trailing Herbert Hoover.
The assessment, however, is too kind to the Carter ex-presidency. During nearly three decades as a freelance apostle of peace, the man from Plains has built a record marked by grand gestures, modest accomplishments and a few big goofs that somehow fail to pierce his halo. In office and out, his actions have been driven by a desperate desire to do good and a misplaced confidence that his radiant good intentions could bring out the hidden good in others.
Seen in that light, Carter’s misguided visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories this month begins to make sense. It’s not an anomalous misstep, but the latest in a decades-long series of foreign-policy bungles punctuated by a handful of very big successes. When Carter this month visited Yasser Arafat’s grave, embraced leaders of Hamas and all but forced the Israeli government to snub him and embarrass itself, he wasn’t guided mainly by malice or bigotry (though his record leaves room for question). It was, rather, a clumsiness that’s plagued him persistently where the Middle East was concerned.
Carter’s White House years are rarely recalled with nostalgia. He presided over a dismal economy, the highest interest rates in American history, a continuing oil crisis and a national mood of malaise. It’s no exaggeration to say that he left Americans so soured on their government that the door was opened to a generation of rule by the far right. He also bungled America’s response to the fall of the Iranian shah and the rise of the Islamic Republic, ushering in three decades of bitterness. In Afghanistan, he responded to a Soviet invasion by helping to midwife the Mujahedeen guerrilla army, which evolved into today’s Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Out of office, Carter has been transformed into an icon of peace, a worldwide symbol of hope. That’s certainly an improvement over malaise. He has traveled into danger zones and cooled tensions by his very presence, winning mass acclaim. His Carter Center in Atlanta has done good work in fighting African disease and monitoring elections.
And, as before, he’s had some big gaffes. He volunteered to step in during an American-North Korean nuclear crisis in 1994 and ended up embarrassing the Clinton administration — before he successfully secured an agreement from the North Koreans to freeze nuclear weapons work, which seemed like a good thing at the time. In 2004, he organized monitoring of a Venezuelan election and certified it as fair, confirming the democratic mandate of that country’s military strongman, Hugo Chavez.
This month’s powwow with Hamas is of a piece with this record. By reaching out to an international pariah, the ex-president unintentionally transmitted the message that extremists need not moderate their positions, because the world will eventually come around, starting with a former American president. He has embarrassed his own government — his successor in the Oval Office — and humiliated a friendly government that should be his ally.
What was he trying to accomplish? Carter said he wanted to offer himself as a mediator between Israel and the Islamist party, because Hamas must be acknowledged as an essential party to any peace agreement. But a peace agreement is precisely what Hamas doesn’t want, as it has said repeatedly. It wants to see Israel destroyed. Once it drops that demand, it can talk to anyone it wants.
As for mediators, Israel and Hamas already have all the mediators they need, beginning with the Egyptian and Saudi governments, which have been trying to bring Hamas into the circle of coexistence for three years. The Egyptians believe the problem isn’t Israel but Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and participate in a real peace process. What could Carter add?
What he adds, in fact, are some important lessons in informal politics. We learned that you can’t bring peace between two sides if you are overly identified with one side and utterly mistrusted by the other. We learned that thinking of yourself as a friend to others doesn’t make you a friend in their eyes.
Good intentions, we’ve learned, do indeed pave roads, but they don’t necessarily lead to Jerusalem.