“The US and Israel Stand Alone”
Former US president Jimmy Carter speaks with DER SPIEGEL about the danger posed to American values by George W. Bush, the difficult situation in the Middle East and Cuba’s ailing Fidel Castro.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Carter, in your new book you write that only the American people can ensure that the US government returns to the country’s old moral principles. Are you suggesting that the current US administration of George W. Bush of acting immorally?
Carter: There’s no doubt that this administration has made a radical and unpressured departure from the basic policies of all previous administrations including those of both Republican and Democratic presidents.
SPIEGEL: For example?
Carter: Under all of its predecessors there was a commitment to peace instead of preemptive war. Our country always had a policy of not going to war unless our own security was directly threatened and now we have a new policy of going to war on a preemptive basis. Another very serious departure from past policies is the separation of church and state, which I describe in the book. This has been a policy since the time of Thomas Jefferson and my own religious beliefs are compatible with this. The other principle that I described in the book is basic justice. We’ve never had an administration before that so overtly and clearly and consistently passed tax reform bills that were uniquely targeted to benefit the richest people in our country at the expense or the detriment of the working families of America.
SPIEGEL: You also mentioned the hatred for the United States throughout the Arab world which has ensued as a result of the invasion of Iraq. Given this circumstance, does it come as any surprise that Washington’s call for democracy in the Middle East has been discredited?
Carter: No, as a matter of fact, the concerns I exposed have gotten even worse now with the United States supporting and encouraging Israel in its unjustified attack on Lebanon.
SPIEGEL: But wasn’t Israel the first to get attacked?
Carter: I don’t think that Israel has any legal or moral justification for their massive bombing of the entire nation of Lebanon. What happened is that Israel is holding almost 10,000 prisoners, so when the militants in Lebanon or in Gaza take one or two soldiers, Israel looks upon this as a justification for an attack on the civilian population of Lebanon and Gaza. I do not think that’s justified, no.
SPIEGEL: Do you think the United States is still an important factor in securing a peaceful solution to the Middle East crisis?
Carter: Yes, as a matter of fact as you know ever since Israel has been a nation the United States has provided the leadership. Every president down to the ages has done this in a fairly balanced way, including George Bush senior, Gerald Ford, and others including myself and Bill Clinton. This administration has not attempted at all in the last six years to negotiate or attempt to negotiate a settlement between Israel and any of its neighbors or the Palestinians.
SPIEGEL: What makes you personally so optimistic about the effectiveness of diplomacy? You are, so to speak, the father of Camp David negotiations.
Carter: When I became president we had had four terrible wars between the Arabs and Israelis (behind us). And I under great difficulty, particularly because Menachim Begin was elected, decided to try negotiation and it worked and we have a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt for 27 years that has never been violated. You never can be certain in advance that negotiations on difficult circumstances will be successful, but you can be certain in advance if you don’t negotiate that your problem is going to continue and maybe even get worse.
SPIEGEL: But negotiations failed to prevent the burning of Beirut and bombardment of Haifa.
Carter: I’m distressed. But I think that the proposals that have been made in the last few days by the (Lebanese) Prime Minister (Fuoad) Siniora are quite reasonable. And I think they should declare an immediate cease-fire on both sides, Hezbollah said they would comply, I hope Israel will comply, and then do the long, slow, tedious negotiation that is necessary to stabilize the northern border of Israel completely. There has to be some exchange of prisoners. There have been successful exchanges of prisoners between Israel and the Palestinians in the past and that’s something that can be done right now.
SPIEGEL: Should there be an international peacekeeping force along the Lebanese-Israeli border?
SPIEGEL: And can you imagine Germans soldiers taking part?
Carter: Yes, I can imagine Germans taking part.
SPIEGEL: … even with their history?
Carter: Yes. That would be certainly satisfactory to me personally, and I think most people believe that enough time has passed so that historical facts can be ignored.
SPIEGEL: One main points of your book is the rather strange coalition between Christian fundamentalists and the Republican Party. How can such a coalition of the pious lead to moral catastrophes like the Iraqi prison scandal in Abu Ghraib and torture in Guantanamo?
Carter: The fundamentalists believe they have a unique relationship with God, and that they and their ideas are God’s ideas and God’s premises on the particular issue. Therefore, by definition since they are speaking for God anyone who disagrees with them is inherently wrong. And the next step is: Those who disagree with them are inherently inferior, and in extreme cases — as is the case with some fundamentalists around the world — it makes your opponents sub-humans, so that their lives are not significant. Another thing is that a fundamentalist can’t bring himself or herself to negotiate with people who disagree with them because the negotiating process itself is an indication of implied equality. And so this administration, for instance, has a policy of just refusing to talk to someone who is in strong disagreement with them — which is also a radical departure from past history. So these are the kinds of things that cause me concern. And, of course, fundamentalists don’t believe they can make mistakes, so when we permit the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, it’s just impossible for a fundamentalist to admit that a mistake was made.
SPIEGEL: So how does this proximity to Christian fundamentalism manifest itself politically?
Carter: Unfortunately, after Sept. 11, there was an outburst in America of intense suffering and patriotism, and the Bush administration was very shrewd and effective in painting anyone who disagreed with the policies as unpatriotic or even traitorous. For three years, I’d say, the major news media in our country were complicit in this subservience to the Bush administration out of fear that they would be accused of being disloyal. I think in the last six months or so some of the media have now begun to be critical. But it’s a long time coming.
SPIEGEL: Take your fellow Democrat Senator Hillary Clinton. These days she is demanding the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But she, like many others, allowed President Bush to invade Iraq under a false pretext.
Carter: That’s correct.
SPIEGEL: Was the whole country in danger of losing its core values?
Carter: For a while, yes. As you possibly know, historically, our country has had the capability of self-correcting our own mistakes. This applied to slavery in 1865, it applied to legal racial segregation a hundred years later or so. It applied to the Joe McCarthy era when anti-communism was in a fearsome phase in the country like terrorism now. So we have an ability to correct ourselves and I believe that nowadays there is a self-correction taking place. In my opinion the election results in Connecticut (Eds: The primary loss of war supporter Senator Joseph Lieberman) were an indication that Americans realized very clearly that we made a mistake in going into Iraq and staying there too long.
SPIEGEL: Now even President Bush appears to have learned something from the catastrophe in Iraq. During his second term he has taken a more multilateral approach and has seemed to return to international cooperation.
Carter: I think the administration learned a lesson, but I don’t see any indication that the administration would ever admit that it did make a mistake and needed to learn a lesson. I haven’t seen much indication, by the way, of your premise that this administration is now reconciling itself to other countries. I think that at this moment the United States and Israel probably stand more alone than our country has in generations.
SPIEGEL: You’ve written about your meeting with Fidel Castro. He appears seriously ill now and Cuban exiles are partying already in the streets of Miami. You are probably not in the mood to join them.
Carter: No, that’s true. Just because someone is ill I don’t think there should be a celebration of potential death. And my own belief is that Fidel Castro will recover. He is two years younger than I am, so he’s not beyond hope.
SPIEGEL: You sought to normalize relations with Castro, but that never happened. Has anything been achieved through Cuba’s isolation?
Carter: In my opinion, the embargo strengthens Castro and perpetuates communism in Cuba. A maximum degree of trade, tourism, commerce, visitation between our country and Cuba would bring an earlier end to Castro’s regime.
SPIEGEL: You’ve been called the moral conscience of your country. How do you look at it yourself? Are you an outsider in American politics these days or do you represent a political demographic that could maybe elect the next US president?
Carter: I think I represent the vast majority of Democrats in this country. I think there is a substantial portion of American people that completely agree with me. I can’t say a majority because we have fragmented portions in our country and divisions concerning gun control and the death penalty and abortion and *** marriage.
SPIEGEL: As president, your performance was often criticized. But the work you did after leaving office to promote human rights has been widely praised. Has life been unfair to you?
Carter: I’ve been lucky in my life. Everything that I’ve done has brought great pleasure and gratification to me and my wife. I had four years in the White House — it was not a failure. For someone to serve as president of the United States you can’t say it is a political failure. And we have had the best years of our lives since we left the White House. We’ve had a very full life.
SPIEGEL: Do you feel you achieved even more out of office than you did as president?
Carter: Well, I’ve used the prestige and influence of having been a president of the United States as effectively as possible. And secondly, I’ve still been able to carry out my commitments to peace and human rights and environmental quality and freedom and democracy and so forth.
SPIEGEL: Does America need a regime change?
Carter: As I’ve said before, there is a self-corrective aspect to our country. And I think that the first step is going to be in the November election this year. This year, the Democrats have good chance of capturing one of the houses of Congress. I think the Senate is going to be a very close decision. My oldest son is running for the US Senate in the state of Nevada. And if just he and a few others can be successful then you have the US Senate in Democratic hands and that will make a profound and immediate difference.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Carter, thank you for the interview.