Friday, October 11, 2002

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In defense of Jimmy Carter

I never thought I would write those words; I'm not the man's biggest fan. Today, however, I suspect they will be necessary in the Blogosphere. Carter was awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize, even though this award is usually given for activities pursued in the previous year, and to my knowledge Carter hasn't done anything significant. The A.P. story has the killer quote (first picked up by AtlanticBlog):

"`'It should be interpreted as a criticism of the line that the current administration has taken,' Gunnar Berge, chairman of the Nobel committee, said. `It's a kick in the leg to all that follow the same line as the United States.'"

Well, at least they didn't give the award to bin Laden. [OK, smart guy, who do you think merits the award?--ed. Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, for coming up with the idea of using U.S. assistance to control loose nukes. Sit back and think about what the world would look like right now if that program never came to fruition].

Put aside the idiotic reasoning of the Nobel committee (and note that Carter had the decency not to comment when prodded about Iraq; his acceptance statement was similarly innocuous). [What about his Larry King interview on CNN?--ed. D'Oh! But he also said some nice things about Bush in the interview.] Put aside the fact that others have equal standing to merit the prize. Put aside his malaise speech, for those who remember it [Medically impossible--ed.]. The question is, does Carter merit the prize for his accomplishments? Damn straight. Consider the accomplishments:

1) Camp David. Sadat and Begin deserve the bulk of the credit, but saying that Carter didn't have an important role to play is like saying that because the acting in a movie is terrific, the director doesn't deserve an Oscar.

2) Human rights. Carter was the first president to make it a high-profile issue in U.S. foreign policy. There were short-term costs, but the goodwill that initiative bought the U.S. in the rest of the world cannot be underestimated. It's not a coincidence that the third wave of democratization started to take off during his administration.

3) Election monitoring. Carter was at the forefront of this vital tool of consolidating democracy.

4) Being an adult during the first two years of the Clinton administration. Remember those years? Recovered from the nausea? Clinton's foreign policy team was not ready for prime time. Carter helped to bail them out of invasions of Haiti and North Korea. He did it in a sanctimonious, undemocratic, and at times unauthorized way, yes, but he still did it.

5) Development in Africa. In a largely critical essay of Carter's post-presidential legacy, Chris Sullentrop of Slate acknowledges: "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."

6) Without him, Reagan never gets elected. For other reasons like this, check out this P.J. O'Rourke comparison of Carter to Clinton.

Carter is far from perfect, and his vision of how to conduct foreign affairs will always be handicapped by his failure to understand the role that force plays in world politics. But his accomplishments are also tangible, and should not be spat upon just because of the Nobel committee's flawed worldview. Some will point to Carter's ass-kissing of brutal despots as proof that his commitment to human rights is not genuine (see also here). Please. You could find similar quotations from every cold war president about some despicable dictator.

I'm sure in the next few days there will be endless posts on endless blogs about the various flaws of Jimmy Carter. I'm sure Carter will deserve some of those posts. But based on his record, he also deserves the award.

UPDATE: Here's OxBlog's reasonable take on the Nobel; here's Alterman's sickly-sweet take. CalPundit has been kind enough to gather editorial reactions. I think my position on it corresponds closely to the New York Times editorial...shudder. This husband & wife blog bashes Carter and impugns Norway for good measure. I think the facts in their rant are accurate, but any country that's an advanced democracy, a loyal NATO member, and has rejected joining the European Union three times is not an easy country to pigeonhole.

One criticism I didn't address is the question of whether Carter abused his office by using the prestige of the ex-presidency to pursue an independent foreign policy. As Sullentrop notes, "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." I have to respond with a rhetorical question: why is it irresponsible for Carter to use his bully pulpit to advocate for his sincere, albeit occasionally wrong-headed, positions, but it's not irresponsible for another Nobelist, Henry Kissinger, to exploit his bully pullpit by creating a for-profit consulting firm that acts as a conduit for Middle Eastern despots?

posted by Dan on 10.11.02 at 09:30 AM