Jimmy Carter

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
May 17 2002 10:07 AM

Jimmy Carter

He would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling voters.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Jimmy Carter's post-presidential career has been characterized by a seemingly irresistible impulse to continue the presidency that American voters ended in 1980. Nowhere is this tendency more evident than in Carter's free-lance diplomatic efforts, which have been governed by an anti-democratic attitude: When faced with a conflict between democracy and peace, choose peace. Carter relentlessly promotes democracy abroad by monitoring elections and by making well-argued defenses of democracy and human rights, such as the one he made this past week in Cuba. But sometimes his ardor for peace has come at the expense of democracy—democracy in America.

During the buildup to the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, Carter unsuccessfully worked to undermine the foreign policy of America's democratically elected president, George Bush. Carter behaved as the Imperial Ex-President, conducting a guerrilla foreign policy operation that competed with the actual president's. What's disturbing about this behavior is not that Carter opposed war with Iraq.Many Democrats opposed going to war, and they worked within the American system to try to prevent a war that many predicted would be bloody (which it was, for Iraq). But Carter went further than merely lobbying Congress to oppose military action or speaking out in an effort to tilt popular opinion against the coming war. He used his status as a former president to engage in foreign policy, a deliberate effort to subvert the democratic process.

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In November 1990, two months after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Carter wrote a letter to the heads of state of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. He urged the countries to drop their support for Bush's proposed military solution. Instead, as Douglas Brinkley outlines in The Unfinished Presidency, his glowing but not uncritical assessment of Carter's post-presidential years, Carter asked the countries to give "unequivocal support to an Arab League effort" for peace. (As Brinkley notes, Carter's anti-war position conflicted with the Carter Doctrine he had outlined as president: Any "attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such force will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.") Right up to Bush's Jan. 15 deadline for war, Carter continued his shadow foreign policy campaign. On Jan. 10, he wrote the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria and asked them to oppose the impending military action. "I am distressed by the inability of either the international community or the Arab world to find a diplomatic solution to the Gulf crisis," he wrote. "I 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 forego approval from the White House, but you will find the French, Soviets, and others fully supportive. Also, most Americans will welcome such a move." Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft later accused Carter of violating the Logan Act, the law that prohibits American citizens from conducting unofficial foreign policy.

During the Clinton administration, Carter had similar difficulties coming to grips with the fact that he was not president. In 1994, President Clinton dispatched Carter to defuse an impending war with North Korea over that country's nuclear program. Again, Carter confused the foreign policy of the U.S. government with his own personal inclinations and conducted some free-lance diplomacy, this time on CNN. After meeting with Kim Il Sung, Carter went live on CNN International without telling the administration. His motive: Undermine the Clinton administration's efforts to impose U.N. sanctions on North Korea. Carter believed sanctions threatened the agreement he had worked out. By speaking directly to the world about the prospects for peace, he knowingly encouraged countries like Russia and China, which were resisting a sanctions regime. According to Brinkley, a Clinton Cabinet member referred to Carter as a "treasonous prick" for his behavior.

No matter: Carter reprised his direct-to-CNN antics during his trip to Haiti later that year. During his mission as envoy there, he also defied orders from Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Carter had a tendency to treat Christopher as his deputy secretary of state, which Christopher had been during the Carter administration, and not as his boss, which he was during the Clinton-sponsored Haiti mission.

Granted, during none of these scenarios did Carter's actions seriously damage the U.S. effort. The Bush coalition held firm, and wars with North Korea and Haiti were averted, in large part due to Carter's diplomacy. But democracy is focused on means, not just ends. Unlike John Quincy Adams and Theodore Roosevelt, ex-presidents who remained active in American politics after their terms expired, Carter has set himself up as separatefrom American politics. He says he aims to work in areas where he doesn't interfere with the White House or the State Department. But he has no problem interfering when it suits him. His efforts to end the trade embargo in Cuba may be laudable, for example. But Carter's position is at odds with the U.S. government's, and the American system is designed for only one president, and one foreign policy, at a time.

Carter trades on his role as a former president, and many of the non-democracies in which he works have difficulty understanding that he's not a major leader in the United States. Yasser Arafat, for example, once asked Carter to serve as an intermediary with the first Bush administration, not understanding that at the time Carter was tremendously unpopular with Republicans and Democrats alike. Other presidents trade on their former roles, too, cashing in by holding sinecures on corporate boards or by making lucrative speeches. But as distasteful as that behavior may be to some, it doesn't interfere with the current office-holder's ability to do his job. Imagine if all five former presidents, Ford and Carter and Reagan and Bush and Clinton, were perpetually jet-setting around the globe, pushing their own foreign policies and urging foreign leaders to oppose the policies put forward by America's government. That's the stuff of tin-pot dictatorships, not mature democracies.

Carter has done admirable work since he left office, particularly in Africa, where he has helped nearly to eradicate some deadly diseases. And when he's brokering a cease-fire during a civil war in Ethiopia, or promoting new agricultural techniques in sub-Saharan Africa, he's actively making the world a better place. But a benevolent ex-president is still an ex-president, and it would be nice if Carter remembered that more often.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.