agreement · Negotiation · Politics

Jimmy Carter – A Mixed Record as Presidential and Private Mediator

There is no question that Jimmy Carter has remained a force on the international scene since the end of his Presidency in January, 1980. Carter’s impact on the Presidency remains large, as every President since him has attempted to perform international mediation in order to settle a longstanding issue.

Former U.S. President and Nobel Laureate Jimmy Carter gestures at the 21st Hay Festival
Former US President and Nobel Laureate Jimmy Carter tenting his fingers. Never tent fingers.

In many ways, his Presidency was a study of the positives and negatives of the peacemaking process. The Camp David Accords in 1978 were rightfully considered a triumph in gaining a peace between Israel and Egypt. Sure, it’s been described as a “cold peace” but it nonetheless was a peace.

Carter’s Presidency was, however, a mixed bag. As much as Camp David was a success, the current US involvement and conflict in the Middle East can be traced in many ways to the Carter Presidency.  From US involvement in Afghanistan to perceived ineffectiveness in dealing with Iran, those who shared Carter’s idealism in many ways became hardened realists.  Reagan’s presidency of overt display of strength could right be viewed as a rejoinder to the legacy of Carter in office.

Carter’s Peacemaking Has Some Truly High Points

Jimmy Carter has made a second career out of intervening and meddling in international affairs. While his intentions are always good, I can’t help but think he should not be involved in these situations without asking.  Like it or not, his personal international influence is predicated upon his time as President. The Carter Center, which was established in 1982, has the stated purpose advancing human rights and alleviating human suffering.  (Note: This post will not go into other efforts, such as disease eradication, election supervision, etc.)

With no question, he has had some successes. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts.” Again, I give him credit for the numerous successes he has had, such as brokering an agreement between Sudan and Uganda and his efforts in attempting an Israel-Palestinian agreement in Geneva in 2002.  Such efforts earned deserved praise.


Carter’s Style can Leave Me Scratching My Head

One thing I can say is a philosophy that I stick to in dealing with people is to try to figure out first and foremost what makes them tick.  Part of this requires honesty from them and honesty from me.  Obviously, most people like to be praised for accomplishments. This can be a solid way in to earn some trust. “I understand that. You’ve put much work into this and made it look stunning.  It is no doubt a labor of love and the workmanship is gorgeous. However, market value is half of what you are asking.”

But at times things have to get real and praising something that is not worthy of praise will usually lead a person to thinking that he or she has tricked me.  This is why Carter’s praise of some people in the international community is puzzling.

Let’s look at those whom Carter has praised:
(1) Tito – Carter said he was a man who believed in human rights
(2) Nikolai Ceausescu – Carter said that they both agreed in just economics and politics and agreed on human rights
(3) Hafez al-assad – Carter praised his humanitarianism
(4)  Carter actually praised Kim Il Sung. Let that sink in
(5) Think has stated that he thinks Castro did a great job for his people.
(6) Carter actively advised Arafat in negotiating a return of land. Carter referred to Arafat as a “dear friend.”

History does not look too kindly on this list. Each of these has been accused of numerous human rights abuses throughout their tenures of power. I can understand that Carter would want to use some tactics such as this to ease tension and get them to open up.

But just as important is to be honest with whom your are dealing.  When the Iranian Revolution took American hostages in 1979, Carter drafted a letter asking for the safe return of the hostages, Carter asked Khomeini to “recognize the compelling humanitarian reasons, based in international law, for doing so.”Carter had previously viewed Khomeini as a spiritual holy man, which is seemingly how Carter viewed himself. No, Khomeini’s idea of human rights was markedly different from that of international law.

Carter misjudged Khomeini and others and this can cause further consequences. If Ceausescu hears that Carter agrees with his actions on human rights, he would understandably think either that he has Carter fooled or that Carter and the world had no problem with his actions. That Ceausescu was seeking to operate somewhat independently of the Soviets may have been a reason for the praise. But in my mind it lessens the power of his praise, and has no doubt upset other players in these dealings.

Carter Has Taken Sides and Has Arguably Made Things Worse

Back in about 2000, President Bill Clinton was seeking to seal his own legacy with an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. Jimmy Carter was advising Arafat during this time.  At issue was Israel ceding back control to Palestinians. Clinton managed to convince Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barack to return 95% of the disputed territory, including Jerusalem.

Carter has written that Arafat could not have accepted the offer and survived. While I understand that Carter may have had in his mind the assassinations of Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin (for his signing of the Oslo Accords), it was also something to consider whether Arafat had the strength of leadership to be making such an agreement.

Arafat did not accept the deal. Thousands of lives were lost in the aftermath as the conflict between Israel and Palestine continues.

Carter’s Desire for Peace has Led to More Conflict

I think it’s a matter that Carter is inherently a very intelligent and a very good man. He wants to see the goodness in everybody and enters discussions thinking the worst are the purest. Does Carter believe that he prevented war between the US and North Korea?  He may, and perhaps the ends justify the means.

Carter’s presidency was one of attempting to peacefully manage the short and long term strategic interests of the US.  Carter’s post-presidency has been one of a lust for detente. Both are handled the same way: with soft, syrupy and sometimes glowing words to people who are often the antithesis of those words.

Not that Carter does not criticize. For example, he has stated that that Israel’s situation in the Middle East would improve if Israel was more orthodox. He wrote that Israel’s mistake was its move toward secularism. I don’t think an Israeli would take too seriously the suggestion that its neighbors would attack it less if it went more Jewish.

I cannot see how Carter has helped the situation in Israel. I can see some evidence that conflict has intensified with is guidance.

Lessons Learned – Manage Personalities to Make a Deal


When one judges others by how they themselves would act in a situation, it operates as a barrier to empathy for each person’s interests.  I think part of Clinton’s issue was that he himself wanted a legacy of peace in the Middle East before he left office. Clinton was not ideal to broker an agreement because he wanted an agreement as his legacy.

Jimmy Carter also understood that Arafat was in negotiations for himself and could not make a deal that would make him look bad.  Thus his job was not to assist in a deal that was acceptable to the people Arafat represented, but to make a deal that would keep Arafat in power. This makes me wonder why Carter even took the job to begin with, for apparently only 100% of Arafat’s demands would be acceptable.

Deals don’t work that way. Deals require each side to give something up.

Carter himself is still trying.  I am encouraged by his ideas for peace in Syria, and I do see that some of his concepts seem to be getting some tacit approval by the current administration. Of course dealmaking never bats 1.000.

Carter can probably also fully explain and understand that the President has himself a role to protect US interests. Carter, as President, seems to understand that while he was President he had to look the other way at Khmer Rouge and Ferdinand Marcos as a strategic necessity. Carter’s legacy as president includes the Middle East (Iran and Afghanistan, in particular). And that legacy is grim.

Can President Obama allow Iran and Russia to be part of a deal to make peace and survive? I would love to hear Carter’s suggestions for the President.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s