That was the immortal phrase used by Governor Reagan against President Carter in their 1980 campaign debate. It came to mind when I was reading Mr. Carter’s interview this week in Al Ahram, the Cairo newspaper. The occasion was Mr. Carter’s visit there as a member of “The Elders,” a group of former officials who have selected themselves to address and to solve the world’s problems. According to their own website, The Elders “have earned international trust, demonstrated integrity, and built a reputation for inclusive, progressive leadership” and “are committed to promoting the shared interests of humanity.” The only thing missing here is a declaration of their deeply felt humility.
Here are a few of the gems in the Carter interview.
On the current Israeli government: “This is the last phase of Israel abandoning the two-state commitment that was made at Camp David and upheld by all previous [Israeli] prime ministers, from Menachem Begin to Olmert, Barak, and Peres. All of them said they wanted a two-state solution, and they were negotiating on behalf of that premise — that the 1967 borders would prevail, aside from minor negotiating changes. I believe Netanyahu is abandoning that. For the first time in history, he is now intending to confiscate — to occupy and colonize — the West Bank.”
Mr. Carter found no space to note that it is the PLO, not the government of Israel, that has for four years refused to return to the negotiating table. Absent as well is any understanding of what the Netanyahu government has done to improve the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank: from advancing future tax revenues, to granting more work permits for Palestinians to work in Israel, to the removal of scores of checkpoints and barriers to mobility. The notion that Prime Minister Netanyahu wishes to “colonize” the entire West Bank and reoccupy every square foot of it is so bizarre that even Arab sources do not seriously make it.
Now, how can Israel and the PLO move forward toward peace? “I think that Egypt in the future will be the preeminent leader in the peace process,” Mr. Carter says. “This opportunity emerged last year, because, in the past, President Mubarak basically did whatever Tel Aviv and Washington wanted him to do. I think now there is a much greater chance that President Morsi will try to enforce the Camp David Accords.” So, Carter adopts the Muslim Brotherhood line on President Mubarak: American and Zionist stooge, you see. It is the Brotherhood that will bring peace.
Carter then tells his interviewer that he has just seen “a new and wonderful development,” namely the “very close relationship between Egypt and Turkey.” Formerly Israel and Turkey had such a relationship, “but then Israel attacked the ship going to Gaza [the Mavi Marmara] and never apologized.” That is Carter’s full summary of the flotilla story, and it is presented with his usual sympathy for Israel’s side of the story. It is worth mentioning that the U.N. panel appointed to investigate the incident, while quite critical of Israel, concluded that “Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza. The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law. . . . Although people are entitled to express their political views, the flotilla acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade. . . . There exist serious questions about the conduct, true nature, and objectives of the flotilla organizers. . . . Israeli Defense Forces personnel faced significant, organized, and violent resistance from a group of passengers when they boarded the Mavi Marmara requiring them to use force for their own protection.”
When the interviewer asks “Then how can we force peace?” Carter’s humility knows no bounds: He replies, “Well, I forced peace in a way.” Carter rightly notes that he “had two courageous men in Camp David with me,” but does not say anything here about what brought those two men together: their shared fear of Carter’s intention to bring the Soviet Union into the heart of Middle East peacemaking by convening a Geneva Conference with the Soviets as co-chair.
After eliciting a passing insult of Mitt Romney, the interviewer asks Carter to comment on this: “Watching Wall Street bankers move into the U.S. government, some believe the U.S. itself needs a ‘Spring’ of its own.” Here is Carter’s reply: “I don’t deny that. I’m a professor emeritus. I gave a lecture last week to a large crowd and said our country, the United States, has been the most unequal country in the rich world. But this has been brought about by various factors; it’s very complicated. When I left office and President Reagan came in, he was for rich people in terms of taxation. More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court, which is heavily dominated by Republicans — 5–4 at least — ruled that corporations, even those owned by foreigners, can give unlimited money to any campaign. That has distorted the balance of rights between the ordinary working family and the rich in our country. I hope that changes.”
As to the latter point, can Mr. Carter really not know that, under the Supreme Court opinion, labor unions can also give “unlimited money” as well as unlimited assistance — and do? Is that simply not worth mentioning, in his view? Does he really not know that the Court decisions covered only independent expenditures, and that corporate contributions to political parties and candidates remain illegal? In fact, corporations can’t give any money to any campaign.
Finally, Carter’s nasty crack about the man who defeated him, Ronald Reagan, is sadly what we have come to expect. Carter was defeated because he presided over an economy in which inflation reached 13.5 percent in 1980. The prime rate reached its highest point ever in December 1980: 21.5 percent. Four years later, inflation was down to 4.3 percent and the prime rate had fallen by half. The misery index — the sum of the unemployment rate and the inflation rate — reached its all-time high of 19.72 under Mr. Carter. Every American benefited from the economic policies introduced by President Reagan, which helps explain why, unlike President Carter, he was reelected in a landslide, winning 49 states. What can one really say except “there he goes again.”