Interview with Jimmy Carter
The former US president talks to Lee Michael Katz about Iran, his human rights work and what kind of ex-president George Bush will make
Source: Guardian America
You have been retired as president for 25 years now. At this point, you're probably best known more for being an ex-president than a president. You've certainly made controversial statements and visits, but you've been known for your civic engagements, election monitoring, attempts to fight disease, etc. all over the world...
Good question so far. [laughs]
Is it easier to be an ex-president than a president?
I would guess so. I remember seeing a cartoon in The New Yorker a few years ago. This little boy's looking up at his father. He said: "Daddy, when I grow up, I want to be a former president." So I think that illustrates the difference. Being a former president, obviously you have great advantages in having the prestige of leading a great nation and many people knowing who you are. Some admiring, some deploring what you have done, perhaps. But it also gives you access to almost any human being on earth. Combined with the experience of having led people through a multiplicity of issues, domestic and international. The other thing that you have is complete flexibility. You know, I don't have to do anything I don't want to. If I don't want to go to Haiti, I never have to go to Haiti. If I want to go to Guyana often, I go to Guyana often. If I want to work on the problems in Sudan, I can go to Sudan tomorrow. If I want to avoid the Iraqi situation, I don't ever go to Iraq.
What kind of ex-president do you think current President Bush will make?
Compared to his presidency? Very good. I don't know what his plans are. I've never discussed it with him. But all of the presidents who have left office since I did, including Reagan and Bush Sr and Clinton, have sent delegations down to the Carter Center, so they could decide whether to emulate what I was doing or do something different. I presume that George Bush Jr, George W Bush, will do the same thing. And he'll be welcome.
There've been reports that President Bush wants to establish a center down in Texas to promote such issues as democracy and human rights. Do you think he's in a good position to do that, after his presidency?
That would be a good project for him to undertake. I have no quarrels with that. I think it's a good idea. I hadn't heard that before, but I think it would be perfectly all right.
How do you think President Bush is viewed around the world?
Well, all I know is what major public opinion polls have shown, like the Pew Foundation and others. Our government under President Bush is very unpopular, even within countries that have always been staunch friends of ours, like Jordan and Egypt. I saw one Pew poll that showed that public approbation of this administration in Washington was less than 5%. And in previous years, we could count on 75% or 85% approval from people in Jordan, for instance.
Beyond public opinion, do you think that such issues as Guant´namo could affect his standing as an ex-president in the international arena?
I think it'll be hard among human rights activists to forget that we have declared that the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners was inapplicable, or that we have done things that are universally construed as torture and publicly endorsed them. Or that we have seen the embarrassments of our mistreatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and in Guantánamo.
That'll be difficult to overcome. But if he decides after leaving the White House, as you have said, to adopt human rights promotion and the enhancement of democracy around the world, I think that would be a very good opportunity for him to contribute.
An ex-president who could be in the White House again, President Clinton, in an interview with the Guardian and BBC recently, said he would be interested in an unofficial diplomatic role if there is a Hillary Clinton administration. Do you think that would be the best role for him?
That would be up to obviously the Clintons, but I think that's something that would be almost natural for her to call on her husband to fulfill a diplomatic role.
Mr President, I'd really like your input on a number of foreign policy areas. Iran, for example. There's a lot of talk, at least, about the possibility of attacking Iran, particularly if it continues to develop nuclear facilities. Are you worried about that possibility?
I'm worried about the possibility of an attack. I'm worried about the possibility of Iran continuing to develop nuclear weapons. Both.
Do you think an attack might be necessary at some point, or do you think it would be a mistake?
I think it would be a mistake. It would precipitate another war for which we're not prepared, when we're already bogged down 100 percent, maximum capability in Iraq. Iran is a decidedly more formidable military challenge than Iraq ever was. And I don't think we are prepared to undertake that sort of challenge.
It's obvious [to] every reasonable person that the best approach to Iran is to use diplomacy. And my own preference is for us to have direct relationships with Iran and let them be reassured that they're not going to be attacked and that they don't have any need to develop any sort of weapons.
Just uptown from here, President Ahmadinejad of Iran spoke at Columbia University. Do you think it was a mistake, given the state of human rights in Iran, to afford him such a prestigious platform?
No, I think it was all right to give him the platform. Let him reveal his character and his attitude, which I think proved to be somewhat ludicrous. I don't think it hurt America's security to observe our professed commitment to free speech.
Do you have to let everyone speak? Would you let Hitler speak? You met with some of the people considered the worst outlaws on the international stage. Is there someone so bad that you shouldn't talk to or let speak?
There may be. I know a lot of the bad people in the world. I don't know of anybody that I would prohibit an opportunity to speak in a public forum in the United States.
They have a right to come to the United Nations. And I don't see greater opportunity for them to express themselves at Columbia than they do on the world stage of the United Nations.
Do you agree with the idea, for whatever reason, to prevent Ahmadinejad from seeing the World Trade Centre site?
I don't know what the security problems were. But I have no quarrel with the New York officials deciding no.
You see what Iran is like now, and the American hostage situation there played such a major role in your time at the White House. Is there anything you wish you had done differently with Iran during your presidency?
You hit the Shah of Iran pretty heavily on human rights.
Well, I did that, but you know, after the Shah was overthrown, we immediately had relations with Iran. We had diplomats from Iran in Washington, and obviously I had my own diplomats in Tehran after the Shah was overthrown. So we kept communications up and relationships between our two countries. And I think that's what we ought to do now.
When you see someone like Ahmadinejad, whom I just saw in an old picture of escorting a hostage, someone who is a world leader was involved in taking US hostages
He has denied that, and I've seen arguments about photographs, but I don't know if ...
If he was, would it trouble you greatly? Do you see it and get a visceral reaction, that is what the revolution there has led to after 25-plus years?
Not really, because, you know, some of the young students who took our hostages have become quite prominent in news circles and working for al-Jazeera and so forth, and I don't have any animosity against them. They were misguided.
Are you struck by President Bush's reaction, or lack of reaction, to the Israeli strike into Syria against what has been described in conflicting reports as a nuclear facility?
I haven't seen any responsible report [at time of interview in early October] that it was a nuclear facility. The only thing I have seen surmised is that it was a facility in which North Korea had an involvement, which may very well have been long-range missiles. They are experts on missiles of a moderate nature. And I think it's interesting, not deplorable, that Israel and the United States and also Syria have avoided any sort of comment on it.
Do you think it wasn't nuclear, as people are talking about?
I have no idea. I don't really know.
Aren't you briefed on it? The White House giving you courtesy briefings to an ex-president?
I haven't been briefed by the White House in six or seven years.
Are there ideas you've tried to bring to President Bush where you've been rejected?
When I've wanted to have access to President Bush, I've always had it. And when I've done something that I thought he might want to know about, I've gone to the White House and given him a report. Like when I visited Cuba, for instance, I came back and had a private session with him and Condoleezza Rice and gave him a report
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