Jimmy Carter’s Shrinking Legacy

Jimmy Carter’s Shrinking Legacy

In early 1976 I participated in the mass meeting of the Democratic Party in the Mt. Vernon precinct of Northern Virginia. I voted for a little known candidate from the South named Jimmy Carter. After he won his party’s nomination I voted for him again in the November election. At the age of 23 I served as an election official at the polls that year as a Democratic; any other party affiliation was considered something akin to treason in my home growing up. It was satisfying to work a big election like that one. I was especially attracted to Carter, as were many evangelicals, because he boldly identified himself as a born-again Christian and made a point of emphasizing the role of piety in fulfilling the duties of public life.

For most, Carter was a disappointment as president. He was considered naïve and failed to inspire the confidence even of his own party. In the next election Ted Kennedy launched an unusual challenge to the incumbent president for his party’s nomination. Carter’s approval rating bottomed-out at 21% just prior to the 1980 convention, the lowest ever for any sitting president. (This is still true despite recent statements by AOL claiming the honor for George W. Bush). He won only 35% of the popular vote in the general election that year.

He seemed unskilled in his handling of SALT II talks (scrapping rather than building on previous negotiations), the energy crisis (after declaring an energy war he prescribed driving 55 and wearing long-johns, only resulting in gas lines — again), inflation (double-digits), the self-punishing 1980 Moscow Olympics boycott and Russian grain embargo, and the infamous “malaise” speech which shifted blame for these problems onto a demoralized society. And this is the short list.

Developments in Iran were especially misread. In Teheran in December, 1977, he offered a toast praising the despised Shah resulting in riots. The intelligence on the emerging Islamic Revolution was either non-existent or badly managed. The later ill-fated decision to allow the deposed Shah to enter the U.S. from his exile for medical treatments resulted in the U.S. embassy hostage crisis, and Carter’s passive “Rose Garden” strategy for solving that crisis caused many to question his competence. These missteps affect us to this day.

He did achieve a dramatic breakthrough agreement with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978. Sadat subsequently lost his life to Islamic radicals who considered his actions traitorous.

Evangelicals were especially disappointed with his support of the Equal Rights Amendment and the 1978 White House Conference on Families. Though Carter denied it, many felt that the ERA would sound the death-knell to efforts to restrict abortion practices in this country. Many evangelicals saw the conference on families as an effort to re-define the family in terms of nearly any group-living arrangement under the same roof. Both are issues that continue to concern social conservatives today. Many evangelicals, not previously party-conscious, fled Carter’s party to embrace the Reagan candidacy in 1980. Most never looked back.

In a telling excerpt from his presidential memoirs Keeping Faith, he reports on a 1978 cabinet level conversation about allowing the deposed Shah of Iran into the country: “[Secretary of State] Cy [Vance] made it clear that he was prepared to admit the Shah for medical reasons. I [Carter] was now the lone holdout. I asked my advisors what course they would recommend to me if the Americans in Iran were seized or killed.”

Jimmy Carter knew that allowing the Shah into the U.S. would expose American personnel to danger and told his advisors so. He proceeded with it anyway. In the eyes of Iranians and the wider Islamic world the resulting hostage crisis and humiliation of the United States government validated the new Khomeini government – a triumph for the Islamic Revolution.

The work of the Carter Center in Atlanta with international election commissions, his efforts with Habitat for Humanity, along with his many publications since leaving the presidency make him one of our more successful ex-presidents. In 2002 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for international efforts to resolve conflict, promote human rights, and improve living standards in the two-thirds world. But even these achievements deserve closer scrutiny. Financial and political shenanigans connected to his endeavors bring the ex-president’s judgment and even his integrity into question.

Carter has been showing up in some interesting places since his loss in that 1980 election. His financial connections with principals of the Pakistani-based Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) and their involvement with the politics of the Muslim world have never been adequately explored by the mainstream press. The bank had close connections with Carter confidant and chief lender Bert Lance’s National Bank of Georgia. After the worst international banking scandal in history, BCCI was shut down in 1991, but not before marring legendary presidential advisor Clark Clifford’s otherwise stellar career. Carter, who reportedly accepted millions from the bank’s co-founder for various projects, managed to walk away unscathed and was awarded the Nobel Prize for the work of the Carter Center a decade later.

Reports in two books The Outlaw Bank: A Wild Ride into the Secret Heart of BCCI (1993) by then Time magazine reporters Jonathan Beaty and S.C. Gwynn and False Profits (1992) by then Wall Street Journal reporter Peter Truell and reporter Larry Gurwin reveal a very troubling relationship with the bank’s founder Agha Hasan Abedi.

According to False Profits:

In the spring of 1987, Abedi took Carter and his wife on a world tour, with stops in London, Hong Kong, Tibet, Peking, and Moscow. It was ‘almost a social trip,’ with big dinners scheduled at every stop, said Bill Kovach, a former editor of the Atlanta Constitution, who went on part of the trip. He later told a reporter that Carter and Abedi were not only friends but that the former president talked about the Pakistani Banker ‘almost like a religious figure.’

I include the last line simply to show that the former president’s ability to make character judgments seems fatally flawed, as indicated by the following observations. While Abedi drew deep draughts of prestige from Carter’s friendship and presence on numerous excursions into the Third World, Carter’s philanthropic projects benefited from millions in BCCI’s largesse. In The Outlaw Bank the authors state,

Though the sums he received were huge by any standard of measure, Carter claims to have had no idea either that he was being exploited by Abedi, or that his benefactor was deeply corrupt. Still Carter went ahead and took at least 1.5 million from BCCI after the bank was indicted and convicted in Florida. Later, as press criticisms mounted, his foundations stopped taking money from BCCI and began to get similar contributions from Sheikh Zayed, who by then controlled BCCI . . . Carter’s judgment was similarly flawed when his foundations accepted more than $11 million from a Japanese gambling magnate named Ryoichi Sasakawa, who had once spent three years in jail awaiting trial as a war criminal and was later convicted in a vote buying scheme. Carter denies he personally profited in any way from such transactions.

Most troubling to me is that the mainstream press is aware of these relationships but generally gives him a pass on all of it.

In 1995 former Carter undersecretary of state Richard Holbrooke, chief U.S. negotiator in Bosnia, had to force his ex-boss out of the process according to Holbrooke’s memoir To End A War (1998). Carter’s intrusive efforts and willingness to appease Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic threatened the progress of the negotiations. Thanks to Holbrooke’s efforts under the Clinton administration the region is making progress toward recovery as a result of the Dayton Accords. But again the episode reveals Jimmy Carter’s lack of judgment in his dealings with criminal figures.

Carter or his surrogates make several appearances in To End A War. This one is telling:

In an effort to head off a resumption of the bombing Radovan Karadzic had reached out again to Carter . . . It was a difficult situation for Strobe [Talbott], one of the most polite people in Washington, and always respectful of the former president, whose administration he had covered as a journalist. But, determined to protect the negotiations he told Carter that the Karadzic channel had to be shut down at least until our efforts were given a fair test. The Administration, Strobe told Carter, would not accept any offer from Karadzic, no matter what it was. Carter was not happy, a CNN camera crew was already standing by outside his office, and he had hoped to announce that he had reached an agreement with Karadzic. After several difficult talks with Strobe, he agreed to hold off.

As stated above, the great achievement of Carter’s presidency was the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Recent activities seem to place even that legacy under a cloud. His call for continued U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority despite the victory of the militant Hamas party in the 2006 parliamentary election again caused many to question his judgment. The publication of his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid brought charges of anti-Semitism. According to press reports, a long-time center director and 14 members of the 200 person advisory board resigned from the Carter Center.

Carter’s latest quixotic episode involves his self-appointment as negotiator with the terrorist-led government of the Hamas party. At least The Washington Post in an April 17 editorial has recognized the nature of Carter’s efforts at appeasement.

Mr. Carter justifies his meetings with familiar arguments about the value of dialogue with enemies . . .But it is one thing to communicate pragmatically, and quite another to publicly and unconditionally grant recognition and political sanction to a leader or a group that advocates terrorism, mass murder, or the extinction of another state. That is what Mr. Carter is doing by lending what is left of his prestige to an avowed terrorist such as Khaled Meshal – or Mahmoud al-Zahar.

The ex-president seems to have an affinity for such actors on the world stage.

So, why should I be concerned with these developments on a blog called The Pastor’s Desk? Quite simply, Jimmy Carter also styles himself as a representative of evangelical Christianity and liberally (pardon the pun) mixes his religion with politics – or vise versa. According to Christianity Today (April 2008) Carter is a leader of the New Baptist Covenant. Their January meeting attracted 15,000 participants and its leadership met at the Carter Center. He, along with Democratic Party operative Jim Wallis (see his interview in CT, dated May 2008) among others are the new breed of highly visible politically liberal “evangelicals.” Expect to see them more and more in the coming months.

One of Carter’s recent books is a New York Times best-seller entitled Our Endangered Values (2006). A central premise of the book is found in the introduction: Increasing influence of fundamentalists in American religion and government has resulted in profound departures from traditional American values. The former president raises some valid concerns about U.S. policy in the post 9/11 world, but the tone and premise of this book are troubling.

In Our Endangered Values Jimmy Carter’s attempt to lump politically conservative evangelicals with Islamic fundamentalists has popular appeal but is misguided. Also troubling are his repeated accusations of demagoguery against evangelicals who hold different policy views from himself; views which are, like his, often inspired by religious faith. Carter’s repeated use of the “d” word in the book is itself an exercise in demagoguery.

As I wrote nearly a year and a half ago (a local editor twice rejected my op-ed review of Carter and Our Endangered Values), “It’s hard to say where all this might go in the long-run, but in the immediate future I expect to see more of the same. In the next election cycle I think we’ll see a number of candidates scape-goating religious conservatives out of one side of the mouth, while giving us a lot of God and values talk out of the other. It gets votes.”

By the way, I did learn one thing from that 1976 election: a mere profession of faith is never sufficient reason to support anyone with your vote.