Carter's Gamble

Former President George W. Bush was recently interviewed in AARP magazine, where he revealed his approach to post-Presidency politics.  He expressed strong support for military veterans & humanitarian causes around the world, and took a very philosophical approach to life as a high profile senior citizen. However, he flinched at the thought of ever returning to public life by weighing in on controversial topics.

It's safe to say that the office of the Presidency of the United States comes with an unspoken expectation. When you vacate the Oval Office, you must continue support for causes you stand for by founding organizations, fighting disease, poverty, or mental illness, but you do so gracefully. What you mustn't do is try to continue to affect the sort of influence you may have wielded while in office, or it will be perceived that you are trying to upstage your successor(s). There is a certain expectation that former Presidents must stay away from any controversy, lest they, in the minds of some people 'minimize' their legacy.

When confronted with the notion of being considered an elder Statesman, Bush retorts: "'Statesman' presumes I'm out there giving opinions all the time about things, and no, I'm not interested in opining on a lot of subjects. I really think it's important for presidents to exit the stage gracefully. 'Statesman' gives the impression that every time a major issue comes up, I'll be popping off. And that's not what's going to happen."

Bush's position is a common one, and it's probably safe to say that many Former Presidents have exited the stage 'gracefully.' I take this to mean 'quietly' and 'without argument.' However, two former Presidents, William Jefferson Clinton and Jimmy Carter, have, after long periods of incubation, emerged as feisty firebrands of political debate and contention. They aren't "popping off" at every major issue, but when it comes to specific issues, they aren't afraid to stir up controversy and challenge the conventional expectation that all former Presidents must all be stolid wax figures of their former selves.

Examining the political legacies of these two former Presidents, Clinton and Carter, points us to why they push ahead with controversial interviews and statements. The issue is 'legacy.' Both Presidents encountered a great deal of ruinous controversy, especially toward the ends of their terms. Carter was accused of being an ineffectual appeaser; Clinton perjured himself, had sex with an intern and made some questionable decisions. It's safe to say that they both have something to prove. While Bush leaves no shortage of controversy behind, its arguable that his approach to repairing that legacy is 'wait and see how history vindicates me.' Carter and Clinton aren't content with that and have spent he last few years running roughshod over what they feel is unjust or unfair in the political process or around the world.

Clinton, after a few years of making mildly polite statements about his solidarity with the Bush Administration's war on terror, suddenly sprang forth to denounce and debate his detractorspounce on conspiracy theorists and cause general media mayhem.

I feel a former President who generates debate and controversy can be a powerful agent for positive change, as long as the debate and controversy stay civil, academic, and on-focus. 

Jimmy Carter has, since leaving office, been involved with diplomacy and peace negotiation, building homes with Habitat for Humanity, fighting diseases like Malaria, observing elections, and erecting a Human Rights center (appropriately named 'The Carter Center'). He won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2002. He's a generally respected 'Statesman,' but when he wrote a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he stepped on a land mine. 

Carter may be 'of two minds' on the negativity and controversy surrounding his 2006 book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid."

On one hand, he deliberately chose the title to be provocative; the controversy in turn brought the Israel-Palestine conflict into the public consciousness through several news cycles, enough time for Carter to fine tune the issue and get to the heart of the why the conflict is one of the most complex in the world.

On the other hand, the controversy dragged Carter through a series of pointed and withering personal attacks on his character and legacy. Despite the relative nuance of his views in the book, he made a deliberate decision to focus on the plight of many Palestinians due to the security walls' presence inside their borders. By not using the book as a platform to merely denounce suicide bombers blowing themselves up inside Israel and by not making the book a clearer denunciation of Hamas as some might have liked, Carter was accused of being an anti-Semite.

The book proposes some difficult but basic solutions, starting with Israel's withdrawal from Palestinian territory. Its aim is not to present an objective overview of the conflict, but to tackle, head-on, what Carter felt was a humanitarian crisis that was largely being ignored in the United States. No stranger to what generates debate in this country, Carter deliberately chose a provocative title, knowing it would probably get more people to pay attention. Unfortunately, provocation can also spur division.

Carter ran the risk of being called a terrorist or an anti-Semite by involving himself in such an emotional, contentious debate. He is clearly not an anti-Semite.  His is considered an important figure in preserving peace in Israel, having bartered the historic peace agreement between Egypt and Israel during his Presidency. He is clearly not a supporter of terrorism. And yet, there is a certain level of activism inherent in his approach that politicizes what is at its heart a humanitarian quest.

Carter is a humanitarian and an activist, and a former President. Those things don't often collide. While he could have just as easily taken Bush's route and stood up for politically safe post-Presidential causes, he has instead chosen to take a stand for something that touches his own experience growing up in the South.  Observing the institutional marginalization and segregation of a less politically powerful group of people clearly outraged him. He wrote the book from an emotional place, and while that was politically salient, it stirred the pot more than he would have liked. It also got the conversation going in a political landscape where maintaining the news cycle for more than a day is a huge feat. If there was any 'mistake' on Carter's part, his desire to shed light on the Palestinian dilemma had the effect of compartmentalizing is, and in turn, unintentionally minimizing Israel's point of view. This was perhaps unavoidable, but it had the effect of painting Carter as 'pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel,' which he is not.

Diplomats like Carter know that one cannot establish trust between two parties by comparing and contrasting atrocities in a game of 'which is worse?' For instance, look at the the marginalization, oppression and violence toward Palestine and many of its inhabitants, many of whom are innocent. Now look over at the murderous, genocidal apocalyptic statements by Palestinian's own leading political party and the terrorism of its agents against innocents in Israel. On top of that, look at the existing sores in the very recent history of Judaism. Look at the Holocaust, or those trying to deny that it ever happened. There is no shortage of atrocity, injustice and grief on either side, but as long as one side continually quantifies its own suffering as worse, there will never, ever be peace. At worst, there will be total genocide of either group, and a humanitarian like Carter is focused on preventing that, not on advancing the political aims of either side.

Comparing the respective sad, sorrowful cultural plights of two sides of this conflict just provokes an endless shouting match about whose plight is worse, or about who 'more deserves justice.' Carter's book, while provocative, does make one thing clear: action, and the will for peace, and a forward-thinking mindset, set the stage for peace. Injecting the spiritual and cultural injustices perpetrated on both the Jews in Israel and the Palestinian people with their storied history there into every facet of the peace process only serves to hinder peace and perpetuate resentment.

Whatever your take on Carter's controversial positions, there's no denying: despite a Presidency long ridiculed for being an ineffectual failure, Carter's legacy has had long lasting consequences around the world.  He was ahead of his time on the energy crisis; ahead of his time on social justice; ahead of his time on nuclear disarmament.  Men like Jimmy Carter remind us that the second and third acts in Politics and in life can often make the most difference. Carter reminds us that getting older can mean resignation and passivity or it can mean getting up and entering the ring for as long as it takes.

Update: breaking developments in intra-Palestinian reconciliation and the Carter Center's response bring a special prescience to this issue.


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