Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Not so long ago, that would not have been a very controversial statement, at least not within the confines of a Democratic blog. But with the publication of President Carter's book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, the former president has become anathema to some people who would normally be seen as on the same "liberal team."
However, the new book hasn't diminished my respect for Mr. Carter. It's only served to reinforce the idea that the former president possesses a great quantity of that property often found wanting in Washington D.C. and elsewhere -- courage.
This is very likely a foolish diary to write.
Whenever there is a diary that touches on Israel or Palestine, passionate supporters of either side fly in to man the ramparts and push back any assault from positions that are at least as entrenched as those surrounding abortion. Tossing yourself into the center of that kind of fight generally results in a lot of bruises (which thankfully in the case of posts here, are limited to bruises of the ego) and not a lot of progress. Should you feel so inclined, don't let me stop you (not that I could).
An example of the kind of nonsense that often clogs this debate can be found in the reasons that former Carter Center fellow, Kenneth Stein, gave for leaving.
In his book, Carter writes that the [UN] resolution says, "Israel must withdraw from occupied territories" it acquired by force during the Six-Day War in 1967 between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
But the word "must" never appears in the actual U.N. resolution text.
Stein argued that each word in the resolution was carefully chosen and by inserting the word "must," Carter changed the implications of this key resolution.
For those who would like to join Mr. Stein in dancing on the head of that pin, the actual wording of resolution 242 calls for "Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." Does it say "must?" No, but neither does it say "maybe." What other interpretation can be drawn by removing the word "must?" That the UN heartily desired that Israel might remove itself, but that Israel could do so or not as it saw fit? I think "must" is much closer to the intent.
I'll leave that fight to President Carter.
Instead, I'd like to back up a bit... about twenty-eight years, and launch a defense of President Carter himself. It has become a precept, even among liberals that, while Mr. Carter may be of admirable character and might have taken on laudable work after leaving the White House he was really "not a very good president." This is a position so cemented into the press that it seems a necessary addition to any story about Mr. Carter. It's so solidified, that it's certain to appear in any Daily Kos discussion in which the president's name appears.
I have a somewhat different view. Jimmy Carter took office at a time when faith in the government was at a spectacular low. Vietnam and Watergate had thrown a staggering combination at the United States, leaving a country united only in the sense of distrust for everything in Washington. Not only that, but he faced an economy that was in the throws of massive change, and an energy crisis that exacerbated every problem. Even the moon landings, which had served as one pure point of admiration and distraction through the increasingly gloomy years, were in the past.
Jimmy Carter took control of a nation more nearly broken than at any time since the Great Depression.
It's true enough that he faced no Great War or invasion, but in a sense that only made President Carter's task harder. There was no "9/11" around which to rally the nation, only a series of crises, from minor to major, that eroded feelings of well-being. It was the bumpy end to the post World War II "American Century," the messy transition from an industrial to post-industrial economy, the heavy shadow of corruption from both Watergate and other branches of the government, a collapse of faith in the military, and just a lot of people out of work, out of gas, and angry. Carter caught it all -- a perfecta of calamities.
On top of this, President Carter faced a Democratic congress that was so sure they deserved to be there but he did not, that they determined to push around the newcomer, stalling or fighting against his initiatives. They successfully frustrated the president, tsk-tsk'd over his naiveté to all the talking heads, and did their best to make him look foolish -- and in the process blocked the best chance at real economic reform and national health care since the end of the Truman administration.
What was Carter's real sin as a president? He told the truth. Seeing the growing problems of the American economy, he told us that we would have to tighten our belts and reduce government debt. Seeing the clear signs of where the energy crisis would take us both at home and internationally, he started a crash program to reduce our need for oil. Seeing what was going on in the Middle East, he worked tirelessly to -- if not mend all wounds -- at least establish dialog. Seeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the hostage crisis in Iran, he told us that we could not solve these problems through a military invasion, but must learn to work to apply pressure through diplomatic means.
Where Carter failed was only in his belief that the public could discern fact from fiction and act like adults. 1980 presented as stark a choice as the public has faced in its history. One candidate told the voters they would have to reduce their spending, learn to live with less energy consumption, and learn to deal with a world that wasn't an American play toy. The other candidate told them they could spend their way out of debt, that the energy crisis was a fake, and that enough guns would solve any issue.
The result of spurning Carter was a massive increase in national debt, a military build up of forces of a type entirely inappropriate to the world situation, and a deadly increase in our dependence on imported oil -- which itself may be the biggest single determinant in everything that has happened since.
As a reward for being right about the debt, right about oil, and right about the need for changing our approach to international affairs, Carter gets tarred as a "good man but poor president" by Democrats, and faces the charge of anti-Americanism from the right. In the meantime, Ronald Reagan -- who built the debt to staggering proportions, reintroduced every form of corruption to the White House, and assured that oil would dominate our interests for the foreseeable future, is lauded as a national hero.
The truth is, I don't worry about how any of the current controversy is affecting President Carter. For having the guts to face again and again the discrepancy between our words and deeds, Carter has been called everything from a fool to a traitor. But as a cadet at the US Naval Academy, Jimmy Carter set a goal as near to impossible for any man to achieve as hiking to the moon. He would do his best. Always do his best in every situation. When he measures himself against a yardstick like that, what does it matter what the right or the media have to say? Jimmy Carter will get by, whether he is loved by the pundits or not.
But I do worry about us as Democrats. I worry what it means that we should constantly allow a man who has given his life over to the ideals of honesty, decency, and hard work to be constantly derided. The Republicans took on the elevation of Ronald Reagan as a kind of public works project, laboring decades to erase the real man and build the myth that's worshiped today in the public square. Why are we so reticent in pushing forward a man who is everything Reagan claimed to be. And intelligent. And thoughtful. And who, yes, turned his post-presidential career into a continuation of his own good work rather than taking it as an opportunity to line his pocket with lucrative speaking engagements.
Jimmy Carter is my personal hero. There's no man I would rather meet. No one's opinion I would rather seek. No person whose approval I would rather earn. And there's no US president who has done more for the resolution of issues around the world through the means of peaceful negotiation and fair elections -- both things now sadly in short supply both at home and abroad.
To see Democrats not only dismissing Mr. Carter as a "failed president" and climbing aboard the bandwagon to batter the man for once again asking us to step up to a difficult truth isn't just disappointing, it's shameful.