The World According to J.C.
By BRET STEPHENS
November 2, 2005; Page D12 Wall Street Journal
Jimmy Carter's 20th book is a tedious meditation about the appropriate uses of moral values in political life -- as wisely and humbly exemplified by Himself -- and of their misuses under the current Bush administration.
But tedious isn't quite the right word here, because it suggests mere boredom while Mr. Carter's prose manages to be irritating as well. Is there an English-language equivalent to the German Rechthaberei, which loosely translates as the state of thinking and behaving as if you're in the right and everyone else is in the wrong? Yet even such a term doesn't quite capture the sanctimony, the self-congratulation, the humorlessness, the convenient factual omissions and the passive-aggressive quirks that characterize our 39th president's aggressively passive world view. Mr. Carter is sui generis. He deserves his own word.
Everything about "Our Endangered Values" is wrong, beginning, obviously, with the title. The values Mr. Carter says are "ours" are certainly not mine and probably not yours and therefore, necessarily, not ours. In fact, it is not at all obvious that the things Mr. Carter speaks of even qualify as values, properly speaking, unless you believe that "economic justice" is a value, or you subscribe to Marxist liberation theology (Mr. Carter considers the Catholic priests who practiced this theology to be "heroes"), or you would like to pay your "personal respects" to Syria's dictator (never mind that his regime just had the prime minister of Lebanon assassinated), or you can think of nothing bad to say about Saddam Hussein except, perhaps, that he is "obnoxious."
Subtracting "Our" and "Values" from the title, then, the reader is left with "Endangered," the form of the verb here characteristically rendered in the former president's favorite voice. Who, or what, is doing the endangering? Mr. Carter's animating concern is the rise of fundamentalism in religion and politics, but don't suppose that this has anything to do with Islamic fundamentalism. What chiefly exercises Mr. Carter's indignation are neoconservatives, the Southern Baptist Convention and their allegedly converging and insidious influence on government. Together, Mr. Carter believes, they have contrived to set America loose "from the restraints of international organizations" like the United Nations and "global agreements" such as the Kyoto Protocol, apparently for the purpose of eradicating the separation of church and state and creating "a dominant American empire throughout the world."
This is an odd complaint, given the source. Mr. Carter admits that as president he worked "behind the scenes" with the head of the Southern Baptist Convention to develop a program called Bold Mission Thrust, "designed to expand the global evangelistic effort of Baptists." Weirdly, Mr. Carter offers this anecdote in the context of his ostensible opposition to the "melding of church and state," which, he gravely notes, "is of deep concern to those who have always relished their separation as one of our moral values."
As for neocons, Mr. Carter is nearly one himself, so obsessed does he claim to be with human rights. But much as he may hate the sin, he loves the sinner. Think of his view of various world figures from his White House years: Yugoslavia's Josip Tito ("a man who believes in human rights"); Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu ("our goals are the same"); the PLO's Yasser Arafat (a "misunderstood" figure for whom Mr. Carter once moonlighted as a speechwriter). And then there is Kim Il Sung ("vigorous," "intelligent"), whose relationship with Mr. Carter is reprised in this book.
"Responding to several years of invitations from North Korean president Kim Il Sung… Rosalynn and I went to Pyongyang and helped to secure an agreement from President Kim that North Korea would cease its nuclear program at Yongbyon and permit IAEA inspectors to return to the site." Leaving aside the interesting question of why that Dear Leader would be so solicitous of this one, what's chiefly notable about this sentence is that it is one of the few here that isn't demonstrably false or misleading in respect to U.S. dealings with the North.
In Mr. Carter's telling, the 1994 Yongbyon Agreed Framework -- in which Pyongyang agreed to trade its nuclear-weapons program for oil shipments, security guarantees and the construction of two light-water reactors -- was generally going according to plan, only to be gratuitously upended the moment the Bush administration arrived in Washington. "Shipments of the pledged fuel oil were terminated, along with construction of the alternate nuclear power plants," writes Mr. Carter.
In fact, North Korea violated the Agreed Framework almost from the moment it was signed by pursuing a secret, parallel weapons program. For its part, the Bush administration continued to honor the framework's commitments; in 2002, a State Department official even attended the groundbreaking for one of the promised reactors. Only later, when the U.S. presented the North with evidence of its cheating, and the North admitted to the cheating, did the fuel shipments and reactor construction stop.
There is more of this -- personal slurs, particularly against U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, factual omissions (Mr. Carter accuses the Bush administration of making hardly any effort to reduce nuclear-weapons stockpiles but doesn't mention the 2002 Moscow Treaty, which involves the most dramatic nuclear cuts in history), trite sophistries ("a rising tide raises all yachts") and the invariable, habitual, irrepressible blaming of America first for everything from degrading the environment to alienating Syria. At a certain point it all begins to ooze and blur, in the way the speeches and doings of Al Sharpton or Michael Moore ooze and blur. Past a certain point, you just stop keeping track.
Mr. Carter, however, is no gold-plated race hustler or quack documentary maker. He is -- as he constantly reminds us, as if our memories aren't still vivid -- the 39th president of the United States and winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize. Bill Clinton may have the heart of the Democratic Party, but Mr. Carter captures the Zeitgeist of the global left. "Our Endangered Values" is a distressing piece of work for many reasons, most of all because it cannot be safely ignored.
Mr. Stephens is a member of the Journal's editorial board.
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