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Former President Carter Speaks of State of Democratic Party

July 26, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And joining us now is former President Carter fresh from making his speech. Mr. President, welcome.

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Jim, it’s always a pleasure to be on your program.

JIM LEHRER: Well, thank you, sir. How did you feel about the response you received tonight?

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, I thought it was extraordinary. I was kind of pressed for time according to the planners of the convention and still the applause seems to go on and on. So for an old kind of worn-out politician who hadn’t been around conventions very much it was very gratifying.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Did you — do you carry any kind of annoyance with you because you were not here in ’96, you were not….


JIM LEHRER: Yeah, ’92.

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I’ve been to most of the conventions. In ’96 it was cut and dried with Clinton getting re-nominated.

JIM LEHRER: Right. Right. So you’re not … but this was something you’ve always wanted to happen? Or did it really matter to you?

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, it hadn’t been the most burning thing in my ambitions of life to make a short speech at a Democratic convention, but I enjoyed the opportunity tonight because I don’t know what all the other speakers will say during the week. But I think that what I said may be a little bit different from most. I only had one short paragraph about domestic affairs. And I tried to concentrate on things that I’ve learned about in my travels around the world.

Rose and I have been in 120 different countries. And we’ve seen the devastating blow to the image and trust that has always been part of America’s heritage. We are now scorned and ridiculed. And the trust that used to be in our country and the admiration that used to be there for us as a champion of both peace and human rights is just gone and I want to see that change.

JIM LEHRER: And you made it very clear that you think the reason it’s gone is because of things President George W. Bush has done. Is that a correct reading of your speech?

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Exactly. That’s a correct reading.

JIM LEHRER: Is it also correct … you used the word extremism or extremist in relationship to what he has done three or four times. Is that a message that you want us to take from this as well?

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: It is. I think if you look at the history of what has happened in the last three-and-a-half years compared to what happened in this country for the previous 200 years, you see a radical departure from custom and commitments and ideals and moral values.

And I don’t mean by that personal moral values but the value of a nation trying to enhance or at least maintain its moral integrity, having the world believe our president when he makes a statement or our secretary of defense or our vice president. There’s a general feeling that when a statement is made it’s not trustworthy, and I think this has hurt us a lot.

And the attack on civil liberties and the attack on human rights has brought us discredit even from the most respected human rights organizations on earth. There’s no question now that the United States is one of the targets of Amnesty International and others rather than a champion and a hero of those human rights organizations, so the deterioration in the trust that can be placed in our government itself and the problem that we’re having maintaining the basic qualities of human rights are the two things that bother me the most.

JIM LEHRER: When you talk about trust, you’re also talking about truth-telling by the president and the people who work for him. Where have … what have they said that in your opinion was wrong, that was a lie?

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Do you remember the statements that were made about the massive weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?


FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Do you remember the constant allegations still maintained by the vice president that somehow Saddam Hussein and Iraq was directly connected with al-Qaida? Well those kinds of things have been proven to be wrong.

And either there was deliberate deception or gross misunderstanding of the intelligence that’s supposed to go to the president. So I think those kinds of things are very serious reflections on the integrity of our government.

JIM LEHRER: And you hold President Bush responsible for those?

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, I don’t hold him uniquely responsible. I don’t know really to what degree President Bush is the leader among that inner circle when they congregate in the Oval Office to make basic decisions about what to do.

It may be that Vice President Cheney is the dominating voice. Or it might be that in military affairs, maybe Secretary Rumsfeld is the dominant voice. But it’s a coalition of leaders who collectively have not maintained the integrity of our government and its commitment to human rights in our life. And I don’t think there’s any doubt that some of the statements, public statements, made by Vice President Cheney have been very disturbing as they led up to the torture, for instance….

JIM LEHRER: For instance? For instance?

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, his saying, for instance, that the Geneva principles of the treatment of prisoners was no longer applicable; that was a very serious comment. And when he said later that the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, even if they were put on trial, which they haven’t been yet, they haven’t even been charged, but if some day they are put on trial and found innocent, they still may not be released. Those are the kinds of statements that send chills around the world.

Last year, we had a congregation of human rights defenders sponsored by me and the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights who have found their lives extraordinarily blighted in the last two-and-a-half years because oppressive regimes, quite often supported by the U.S. Government, are now branding the human rights heroes as terrorists. And this is the kind of thing that has caused their lives to be completely changed in a deleterious way.

JIM LEHRER: What is it then that President Bush and his advisors should have done after 9/11?

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, I think that a lot of people saw what they should have done. For instance, I think we should have concentrated on the war against terrorism. And I think the… going into Afghanistan was a well considered decision.

JIM LEHRER: You supported that.

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I did support that decision, and I thought we should have stayed there and made sure that that victory was complete and that democracy would follow. Now there are a lot of opinions that think that the warlords have retaken, you know, the country’s control and that the so-called elections coming up are vastly missing the requirements of democracy; whereas we concentrated to an almost obsession the commitment I think that was made long before President Bush went into office to attack Iraq.

And so we kind of abandoned the terrorist concentration and concentrated on Iraq. And in the process, we lost the alliance, as I mentioned in my speech, of almost unanimous support around the world for our battle against terrorism. Now we’ve alienated our allies, created consternation among them.

JIM LEHRER: You know, that’s a very serious charge, you just made, Mr. President, that they went in there – went into office determined to make war with Iraq no matter what happened.


JIM LEHRER: You think….

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, if you look at some of the statements they made in advance including Rumsfeld, including Wolfowitz, including Richard Perle and others, what I say I think will be confirmed by the facts.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe that if the United States had used the same quality and force of resources against Afghanistan and against al-Qaida and not gone into Iraq, that we could have obliterated the so-called Islamic extremist threat — the people…

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: No, I wouldn’t say obliterated but I think it would have lessened it a lot. And I think we’ve aroused a lot of unnecessary threats to our country by the fact that we have alienated those potential avid supporters and partners and allies with us in the global war against terrorism.

Another thing that I think is very important is what I mentioned about the Middle East. You know, whether we like it or not, the conflict between Israel and its neighbors is kind of like a cancer that breeds animosity against the world in many parts… against the United States in many parts of the world.

And this is the first administration since Israel was founded as a nation that hasn’t pursued, as I said in my speech, a simultaneous commitment of comprehensive peace for Israel and justice and hope for the Palestinians. President Bush Sr. did this. Clinton did this. I did this. Nixon did this. All the way back — all the presidents have tried to have an approach to the Middle East — they would achieve those two goals. We’ve abandoned that now with a so-called road map to peace, but that road map I think is superficial.

JIM LEHRER: You believe there is a connection between the problems in the Middle East and the terrorism and the anti-Americanism?

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Sure I do. Of course I do. All you have to do is to travel to any Arab country or Muslim country and you find this feeling. I just got back from Indonesia, for instance, which is by far the largest Muslim country on earth. And they just had a very successful democratic election.

JIM LEHRER: The first one they’ve ever had.

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: The second one — the first one was five years ago. The Carter Center was the monitor of the first one, almost unique monitor. This time we had some monitoring help. But they moved from an indirect election this time to a direct election. But this is a country that’s….

JIM LEHRER: That’s what I meant. First time they had a direct election for president, right?



FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: It is a Muslim country — 87 percent of the people are Muslims. And, you know, one of the premises you hear in America from different sources is that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Well, this is a country that has gone almost miraculously from a totalitarian dictatorship with two strong men, Suharno and Suharto, for 53 years to a complete democracy. And I was — our people at the Carter Center and I were all over Indonesia during this election period, which took place on the 5th of July, no threats, no violence or anything. But the distrust of America’s government is completely prevalent.

Even countries like the population, say, of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt — if you look at the polls run by the Pew Foundation, you find less than 10 percent of the people who now look with admiration and trust on the United States of America.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, one question I have to ask. Between the time you finished your speech and the time you got up here, we were analyzing your speech, and David Brooks made the point that he was disappointed … I’m paraphrasing.

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I understand. I’m not surprised that David was disappointed.

JIM LEHRER: He was disappointed specifically that you did not condemn Islamic terrorism as a threat to the United States and the enemy of the United States. Did I put that…

DAVID BROOKS: I mentioned the 9/11 commission report which talked about Islamic extremism. I want to know what the Democratic strategy against that is.

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I think the Democratic strategy that hasn’t yet been implemented by the Republican administration is to combine the united effort against terrorism that is still potentially there, not only from a few allies of ours, certainly including Great Britain as the most notable one, but I would say including France and Germany and Russia and countries all over the world that fears terrorism but doesn’t find the United States waiting here with open arms or equal sharing in the responsibilities and benefits when we are successful to combat this global threat. We deliberately alienated them in a way by harboring an uncontrollable desire to go to war against Iraq.

DAVID BROOKS: The government of Iraq — there’s now an interim government led by Allawi which seems to have legitimacy. If they do successfully move towards some sort of elections next year, would you grant that this would be an historic and major accomplishment?

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I think it was a major accomplishment in itself to get rid of Saddam Hussein. There’s no question about that. And if the government is really given some authority and sovereignty or we’ll say autonomy at least in Iraq, I will be very gratified, yes. At the same time not only sharing some political authority, Mr. Bremer left a lot of directives intact that are difficult to change, as you know.

So there’s a limited authority now, politically speaking. But that political authority ought to be combined with economic sharing with the rest of the world and the future of Iraq — and I think to some degree military strategy, although I think that the United States should retain the primary responsibility of security — military security.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, Mark has a question and then I’ll let you go, I promise.

MARK SHIELDS: Mr. President, before you arrived, historian Ellen Fitzpatrick made the observation on your speech that only a warrior appreciates the preciousness and fragility of peace. You cast John Kerry tonight in the direct tradition of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, describing him as someone who volunteered for military service, showed up when assigned to duty and served with honor and distinction who knows the horrors war and the responsibilities of leadership.

I mean, do you say now that that is a recommendation why voters who are undecided in this election should vote for John Kerry to replace George W. Bush?

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I really do. I think it’s important that the voters realize what John Kerry has to offer. As I’ve mentioned, John Kerry has already proven that he’ll go to war and will deliberately endanger his own life as he did in the trenches of Vietnam in order to defend our nation’s security, and so did Harry Truman who was a volunteer in effect and Eisenhower who was a professional and served his whole senior life as a military officer.

But I think that having experienced that or having a balanced position toward it would be a very great deterrent to an unnecessary war, which I consider the Iraqi War to have been. We could have avoided that war in my opinion. But I don’t think that it’s possible that, for instance, Dwight Eisenhower would have gone to war against Iraq without a phalanx of eager allies, including the major allies in the world that have avoided the Iraq War.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, thank you very much for coming… for stopping by and talking to us. Good to see you, sir, always a pleasure.