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Jimmy Carter Pats Himself on the Back

In his self-congratulatory Nobel Lecture, the former president proves he's still as naive as ever.

11:00 PM, Dec 10, 2002 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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IN A NOBEL LECTURE YESTERDAY that is a familiar mixture of personal self-satisfaction and national self-abasement, Jimmy Carter names the greatest challenge in the world today, and it is us: the tragic failure of the wealthiest nations to cure the poverty of the poorest.

Implicitly, the second-greatest problem is also us: our failure to recognize that war is evil and to embrace "the premise that the United Nations is the best avenue for the maintenance of peace."

Let's start with the self-congratulation. Carter begins by noting the "perhaps unique" scope and character of that island of moral sanity, his own Carter Center (a point to which he returns at the end of the speech, where he contrasts the center's noble work with the "terrible absence" in the industrialized world generally "of understanding or concern about those who are enduring lives of despair and hopelessness"). Then he launches one of the speech's themes: the identification of himself with previous Peace Prize winners.

First come "my friends, Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin." "Like these two heroes," Carter continues, he began his career in the military. Subsequently, he became commander in chief. As president, he extended his "public support and encouragement to Andrei Sakharov," also honored in Oslo for his Carter-like ideals. Woodrow Wilson, Cordell Hull, George C. Marshall, and--Ladies and Gentlemen--the great Mikhail Gorbachev: The former president feels right at home among these statesmen. Other laureates, more like the post-White House Jimmy Carter, showed that "individuals can enhance human rights and wage peace" outside government and "often in opposition to it"--such were Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa. If these are his peers, however, there is one figure Carter--with a Democrat's sure instinct for the primacy of racial struggles--singles out for deference, "the greatest leader [his] native state has ever produced," Martin Luther King Jr.

As for the lecture on foreign affairs, its core assertion is this airy bit of wishful thinking: "It is clear that global challenges must be met with an emphasis on peace, in harmony with others, with strong alliances and international consensus."

But of course, the challenges exist precisely where there is no consensus--not between Indians and Pakistanis, or Israelis and Palestinians, or Russians and Chechens, or suicidal Islamic extremists and anybody else. Great powers have enemies who do not necessarily play harmoniously with others. Carter, who presided over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the holding of some 60 Americans hostage in revolutionary Iran for 444 days, knows this. Alliances are strong when they have intelligent leadership from those prepared to act, not when they are debating societies or comfortable multilingual bureaucracies whose chief product is paper.

Carter seems not to have lived through the 1990s. His belief that the United Nations can maintain peace flies in the face of the U.N.'s catastrophic passivity before genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda. Indeed, his whole pacifist emphasis (the disclaimers--"War may sometimes be a necessary evil"--ring hollow) seems a flight from reality. Thus, he quotes 1950 Nobel peace laureate Ralph Bunche to the effect that "war begets only conditions that beget further war," a sentiment bizarre and unconvincing coming from a grandson of slaves whom it took a bloody war to free.

There is no doubt that Jimmy Carter's NGO has done praiseworthy humanitarian work in Africa and elsewhere. But neither his naive analysis of world affairs nor his smarmy truisms--"We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other's children"--have relevance for the grownups who must plot our course in the world after September 11.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.