A too-familiar tale: Carter as an innocent abroad - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

A too-familiar tale: Carter as an innocent abroad

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Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2008 4:06 am | Updated: 8:42 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Poor Jimmy Carter. Such wonderful intentions. Such ghastly naivete.

Watching the former president go to the Middle East in search of peace is like watching a sheep walk into the wolf's lair intent on building greater animal solidarity.

Carter has done a lot of good work since leaving the White House. But he still makes two fundamental mistakes in dealing with wolves.

First, he assumes that everyone has the goodness of heart that he does.

Second, he seems to take almost everything he's told at face value - even in the Middle East, a wilderness of human deceit where nothing should be taken at face value.

Consider Carter's own account of his 1977 meeting with Hafez Assad, then the dictator of Syria.

Assad - now fortunately dead - was one of the premier sponsors of international terrorism. He paid and protected some of the world's most notorious killers.

Assad threatened Israel and his Arab neighbors alike. At home, he ran a terrifying police state.

But to Jimmy Carter, this was one great human being. In Carter's 1985 book "The Blood of Abraham," he recalled their first meeting:

"I soon found him to be quite gracious, completely relaxed, humorous in his remarks, and extremely interested in my efforts to arrange peace negotiations. We began to enjoy the discussion, parrying back and forth and attempting to outdo each other in precipitating laughter in our audiences of aides and advisers around the table."

Is it possible that Carter didn't know that the frightened men who surround any despot know they must laugh long and hard at the Great Man's jokes? Their children's lives may depend on it.

Assad assured Carter that he was interested in peace. But in the years that followed, the Syrian strongman undermined every peace effort until his death in 2000.

So, what did we learn from this experience?

Flash forward three decades. Now we have Carter working on his own private diplomatic initiative in Syria - still the safe home of choice for many a harried terrorist.

Carter met in recent days with Assad's son, Bashar, the current dictator. The Syrian leaders, Carter said, assured him that they wanted peace with Israel "as soon as possible."

Sure they do.

So what's the holdup? Why, the United States and Israel, of course. Or so Carter was persuaded.

Carter also met with Palestinian terrorist leader Khaled Mashaal of Hamas and - surprise! - found him to be a great guy as well. Not a fanatic at all, it turns out.

Mashaal expressed appreciation to Carter for ignoring the world's general condemnation of his organization. Mashaal called Carter a brave man.

The former president, in turn, assured the world that Hamas was prepared, under the right deal, to "accept the right of Israel to live as a neighbor next door in peace."

The real problem, Carter indicated, was that the United States and Israel don't want to talk to Hamas.

Within hours, Mashaal was undercutting this cheerful analysis of Hamas thinking. The organization, he said, would never recognize the Jewish state.

And while Carter made a last-minute plea to Mashaal to halt rocket fire on Israel for a month, Hamas leaders made clear that they intended to do just the opposite by stepping up their attacks.

It was a calculated humiliation of Carter as he left the region: Don't let the door hit you on the way out, O Brave One.

And so Carter naively handed Hamas a propaganda victory, lending them some of his international prestige and receiving nothing in return.

This rewards and encourages violent extremism.

And it weakens Arab and Israeli moderates - the very people on whom any real hope for peace rests.

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Steve Winn is deputy editorial page editor at the Kansas City Star. Contact him via e-mail at swinn@kcstar.com.

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