Thursday, October 21, 2004

Jimmy Carter

Chris Matthews interviewed Carter on 18-Oct. Naturally I didn't watch it (who has time?), but I heard about it, and found the transcript. FWIW, the transcript also includes an "interview" with George Carlin, in which Matthews does essentially all the talking. But let's look at Carter a while.

By now everybody has heard this Q and A:

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you the question about--this is going to cause some trouble with people--but as an historian now and studying the Revolutionary War as it was fought out in the South in those last years of the War, insurgency against a powerful British force, do you see any parallels between the fighting that we did on our side and the fighting that is going on in Iraq today?

CARTER: Well, one parallel is that the Revolutionary War, more than any other war up until recently, has been the most bloody war we've fought. I think another parallel is that in some ways the Revolutionary War could have been avoided. It was an unnecessary war.

Had the British Parliament been a little more sensitive to the colonial's really legitimate complaints and requests the war could have been avoided completely, and of course now we would have been a free country now as is Canada and India and Australia, having gotten our independence in a nonviolent way.

I think in many ways the British were very misled in going to war against America and in trying to enforce their will on people who were quite different from them at the time.

Unless by "recently" Carter means the Civil War, that's a rather startling bit of carelessness. And of course without the American example to influence attitudes and events, it is impossible to honestly assert that Canada et al would have "gotten their independence in a non-violent way." Carter is supposed to be a historian?

The next question: "Do you think as an historian you would have foreseen, had you been president, the nationalistic fight of those people in Iraq once we got in there?" Carter answers with "Well, I think almost any reasonable person who knew history would say that you can't go into an alien environment and force by rule of arms by forcing the people to adopt a strange concept." Aside from being disingenuous (Iraq is a bit more familiar with this "strange concept" than most Arabic countries), his claim is wrong. As a counterexample I offer the history of early Muslim expansion.

Matthews' next question asserts something I've not heard anyone actually say "that we can go into countries like Iraq and that we can use our force of arms and our economic might to transform them into democracies? It's the new conservative philosophy." Carter's answer is rather clumsy and muddy ("turning their premises of the Iraqis over to them politically and to the international community" ??).

Matthews next question has to do with the history of the Revolutionary War, and Carter's answer seems accurate.

Then Matthews indulges in an amazing bit of fantasy: "was it possible that if the president . . . could have reached Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein could have explained to the president no matter what we think of him and his tyranny over there that he didn't have weapons of mass destruction ..." Who on earth in full possession of his senses would have taken Saddam's word for anything? Carter of course claims that the UN hadn't exhausted its efforts yet, and that the premises for war were all wrong. This seems to be received wisdom in some quarters, for reasons that elude me. The UN inspectors could have kept working forever: Saddam was not cooperating. And that intelligence report that everybody keeps cherry-picking from did say that Saddam was keeping everything in readiness for removal of sanctions.

The next question is more of the same.

Matthews asks about Christmas in Plains and the hostage crisis in the next series of questions. Carter said his goals were to protect the country and make sure the hostages came home safe and free. I'll give him credit for trying, even though the expedition failed. And the deal Reagan seems to have made was hardly a credit to him or a benefit to the country. On the other hand, Carter seems not to understand in the slightest that the hostage crisis was not "a serious mistake which brought catastrophe on their country, and Iran has never recovered its international prestige and its influence that they lost during that ill-advised experience." On the contrary, their prestige rose among Muslims around the world, and they've been influential ever since.

The questions about Iran continue, with Carter stating that not going to war with Iran was probably the right decision (I'm not sure, myself. In retrospect it might have been a good idea, but . . .), and patting himself on the back for resisting the temptation to become popular by going to war.

After the commercial break Carter answers that he "was very careful to separate completely any religious commitment of mine:" I get what he means anyway. Then he deprecates the "melding . . . of the Republican Party and the Christian right-wing fervent believers." I'm not sure what exactly he deprecates here: that believers are fervent, that they are "right-wing" (by which he means, if my observations of said believers are accurate, not social-leftists), or that the Democratic Party isn't very welcoming of social-conservatives or social-centrists. That the Democratic Party's Christian base is mostly from "mainline" churches seems to be OK for him; its those pesky evangelicals becoming Republican that grinds his gears. I suppose that's not a surprising attitude: he has to be really annoyed that his own home team (Baptists) has been rooting for the other side.

Matthews' question about the "odd coalition" isn't so much a question as a request for complaint. Carter skips that, and then brags about his work to bring "peace to the Israelis and peace and justice, as well, to their immediate neighbors. I devoted a large portion of my administration to that and formed a treaty between Israel and Egypt, not a word of which has ever been violated." Then he says he doesn't get enough credit for the Camp David accords. Given that the instigator of the accords was Sadat, the one took the biggest risks was Sadat, and the one who died a martyr to his belief that the accords would help his country was Sadat, I think Carter is spectacularly arrogant here.

Carter goes on to say that every president from Eisenhower on made "every effort to bring peace to Israel and justice and peace to their neighbors... until the last 3.5 years. And now everybody knows that looks at it objectively that this effort has been totally abandoned. There is no effort now being made to negotiate or to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians." Well, yes. And good for us. There is no point whatever in trying to negotiate when one side refuses to negotiate in good faith. Every promise Arafat has made he has broken, and until the palestinians are willing to accept another representative to negotiate on their behalf, there is no reason to bother talking anymore. Every now and then you have to tell the truth in international relations, and the truth is that Arafat is a thug with whom you cannot deal.

Now they get into religion.

MATTHEWS: Have you ever seen anything like a religious effort by religious leaders--I'm talking about my own religion, too, Roman Catholicism--the bishops are out there basically saying vote pro- life? They're making it very clear they're pushing a particular candidate in this election, although they don't use the name. I don't remember it--and I don't know is this is going on in Protestant churches or not--but it seems to me this is the strongest influence I've ever seen on an election in terms of religion. CARTER: Well, it is. And of course, what these misguided religious leaders do, in my opinion, is to take two or three individual elements that are not the foundation of Christianity and elevate them to the detriment of others. But I worship, and many Christians worship, the Prince of Peace, not war. MATTHEWS: Right. CARTER: People worship a savior who dedicated his commitment, his life and his words to the alleviation of the plight of the poor and the deprived and the scorned and the forgotten people, instead of elevating the rich to a position of preeminence. And I feel, as a steward of God's world, that I should take care of the environment. So there are many elements of Christianity--peace and justice and humility and service and compassion and love--that have been forgotten, with the elevation of a few other items.

Where should I start? The whole point of life-and-death issues is that they are life and death issues. Why does mentioning this make the religious leaders misguided? And how exactly does being anti-abortion "elevate the rich to a position of preeminence?" OK, maybe he's changing the subject again. But I did notice (maybe Carter didn't read his Bible carefully) that Jesus came for everybody, and didn't focus on just the poor. Or just the rich, or just the fishermen, or just the tax collectors. He came implying that he was more important than any situation. Of course Carter can't resist a little dig that Jesus was the "Prince of Peace, not war:" by implication no Christian can support any war.

He ends by saying that while he doesn't support gay marriage, he does support "if they form an alliance or partnership under secular law, which is our law of this country, ought to be treated fairly and equitably." Which of course begs the question of whether such partnerships ought to be the law of the land.


Carter has been the patron saint of relativism in politics for many years. I think I understand where this comes from: before God we're all wrecks, with none righteous. But you have to make distinctions in a government. Maybe the murderer and his victim are both unrighteous sinners before God. But Caesar had better figure out how to distinguish between them. No country is perfect, but some are obviously better places to be than others, and some are downright dangerous to their neighbors. Your ethic of government had better reflect that, and apparently Carter's doesn't.

It isn't germane to this interview, but Carter seems also to be among those who worship elections. As long as you don't see any procedural problems with an election, you must have a democracy and all is good. You'd think that the various embarrassments of the past few decades would have made him a bit more wary...

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