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Former President Carter Reflects on His New Book, Recent Trip to Darfur

October 11, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Next, two views of the world and its crises, beginning with that of former President Jimmy Carter. He’s the author of a new book, “Beyond the White House.” He spoke with Judy Woodruff yesterday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Carter, thank you for joining us. We appreciate it.

JIMMY CARTER, Former President of the United States: Thank you, Judy, I’m delighted to be with you again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The book, “Beyond the White House,” your latest — what, your 24th book, is that right?

JIMMY CARTER: Yes, 24th.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not as controversial as the last one?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, if it were more controversial, it might sell a few more copies, but, no, it’s not as controversial as the last.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re writing about the work in here at the Carter Center, your work since you left the White House, 25 years of working in Panama, Sudan — I’ve made a list here — Bosnia, China, Haiti, North Korea, on issues from guinea worm, river blindness, malaria, fair elections, human rights, nuclear arms control, 70 countries, a long list of issues. How do you decide what to focus on?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, we have an almost unlimited menu from which to choose, with a lot of requests coming in to monitor this election or that election, or to try to negotiate a peace agreement between these two fighting forces, or to resolve this problem in producing more food grains to eat or to eradicate this disease.

So we don’t have any problem finding enough things to do; the problem we have is making sure we don’t overload ourselves inadvertently.

And so we have a very finely-tuned and I think a highly efficient organization, now adequately financed. And with experience — as you pointed out — in more than 70 nations on Earth, 35 of which are in Africa, but the basic premise of the Carter Center is to fill vacuums in the world.

If the United Nations or the World Health Organization or Unicef or U.S. government or Harvard University is taking care of a problem, we don’t get involved in it. We just kind of go where they are not adequately treating a very important issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You do talk in the book about conflict resolution.

JIMMY CARTER: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You talk about monitoring elections, fair elections, fighting disease, human rights. I mentioned all that. Do you ever worry you’re spread too thin?

JIMMY CARTER: No, I don’t. We’re very careful about that, although I might say that the Carter Center has had a policy of not fearing failure. I mean, sometimes we are willing to take a chance on a subject that seems to be doubtful of success, if we think that it might be worthwhile.

But we limit ourselves. We’ve done, I think, 68 elections so far, every one of them troubled elections. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be there. But we only take on about four or five per year. And we husband our energy and then focus very sharply on a particular problem until we’re assured that it’s been successfully resolved.

Advocating negotiation in Darfur

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask you about Sudan and Darfur. You were there last week. You met with Sudan's president. Just in this period of time, there have already been, what, two serious attacks on villages in Darfur, the latest one against this one group that signed a cease-fire last summer. Is the situation there getting worse, or is it getting better?

JIMMY CARTER: It's hard to say. I think it's -- there's not nearly as many casualties as there were a year or so ago. And most of the displaced persons, who would be refugees if they were outside the country, but they're in -- most of them are in camps and they are safe.

The major violence now is because of a plethora, explosion almost, of rebel groups, all of whom oppose the government, and they're fighting each other, strangely precipitated by the fact that the United Nations and African Union has now planned peace talks to begin on the 27th of this month in Tripoli, Libya.

And so these rebel leaders see themselves as trying to qualify to go to the international peace talks, so they are struggling to get money, and vehicles, and weapons, and fuel, and so forth so they can be branded as adequately important to go to the peace talks. So that's causing a lot of the problem in Darfur now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were there with this group of distinguished world leaders, Archbishop Tutu and others. The Elders is the name of this group. Do you feel you accomplished something?

JIMMY CARTER: I've read the trip report, and maybe in a too subjective way I listed five or six things that we accomplished. Nobody knows when you make an effort or when you plant a seed if it will bear fruit or not.

But we understand the situation much more clearly. And I've sent my trip report to the White House and to the State Department and to the secretary-general of the United Nations outlining what we learned, which may be informative to them.

There are two major peace agreements. One is a comprehensive peace agreement that was consummated by the extremely beneficial intersession of the George Bush administration, who called on John Danforth, the former senator from Missouri, to negotiate a peace agreement after eight years during which President Clinton did not want to promote peace in the Mideast -- I mean, in Sudan. And that's holding so far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying the Bush administration has been better in Sudan than the Clinton administration?

JIMMY CARTER: Infinitely better, yeah. It's an interesting footnote to history -- I don't know if we have time -- but after the Florida election, when all the Democrats were grieved because the Supreme Court said Bush would be the president, Rose and I decided to go to the inauguration. I think we were the only volunteer Democrats on the reviewing stand.

And afterwards, the new president and his mother and father and his wife were very glad to see us there. So George Bush asked me if there was anything he could do for me, and I said, "Yes, you can help promote peace in Sudan after eight years of different policy." And he said, "I'll do it." So to make a long story short, he did it, not necessarily because I requested it, but they were very successful.

Identifying genocide

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the same time, you've been critical of President Bush and others in his administration for saying that the Sudanese government has committed genocide in Darfur. Why is...

JIMMY CARTER: I don't criticize him for that. That's just a legal, semantical argument. I think this -- I'm not trying to minimize the attacks on the innocent people in Darfur by saying that, but the United Nations and most of the human rights groups around the world -- we're one of them -- and the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, none of them would identify what's happened in Darfur as genocide.

Because genocide, in my opinion -- contradicted by some -- is an attempt by a powerful group completely to eradicate from the face of the Earth the existence of people because of their ethnic makeup or because of their race or religion, and that was the case with Hitler trying to exterminate the Jews, and that was the case in Rwanda, when the Tutsis were attacked and over 500,000 were killed in two or three days. That has not been the case in Darfur.

But I don't know if I have time to explain, but the Darfurian problem was caused when some of the people in Darfur rose up in a revolution against the central government. And al-Bashir, the president, used the Janjaweed that are the Arab Muslims -- everybody's a Muslim -- were called upon by him to attack the black Muslims, and that's when the atrocities took place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I read the pro-Darfur activists are saying, by criticizing the use of that term, you take some of the pressure off the Bashir government, the Sudan government...

JIMMY CARTER: I doubt it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... in effect -- I read one said you played into the hands of the government...

JIMMY CARTER: I don't know who that was, but it's not true.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... that they should be held accountable.

JIMMY CARTER: No, the Elders put tremendous pressure on al-Bashir. We had a long meeting both times. Our group was led by Desmond Tutu, archbishop, and by Nelson Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, and by me, and by Lakhdar Brahimi, who was the number-one negotiator for the United Nations for many years.

So we put tremendous pressure on al-Bashir to go to the peace talks and to stop all of his attacks that were orchestrated from the government and to perpetuate and carry out all the terms of the peace agreement between him and the Darfurians and between him and the south. So we put tremendous pressure on the government of Sudan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So looking ahead, reason to be at all hopeful there or...

JIMMY CARTER: Yes, yes, it's much more hopeful than it was four or five years ago, before the comprehensive peace agreement. That agreement is holding so far in a very fragile way. But the leader of the southern Sudanese, a man named Salva Kiir, and the leader of the northern Sudanese, that is al-Bashir, they both, I think, are deeply committed not to violate the peace agreement bad enough to cause a re-eruption of war between the two. So that's a positive development.

The success of the peace talks that are now contemplated at the end of this month in Tripoli on Darfur, I think that that's highly conjectural, and it depends on how it's constituted and how much influence, and attention is given by the international community, and how well they can implement the United Nations Security Council decision to have a strong so-called hybrid force between Africans and outside Africa forces to stabilize the situation in Darfur. All those things are still unpredictable.

U.S. global military intervention

JUDY WOODRUFF: I just want to ask you about one other thing. I was intrigued to read in the book, you write, "American presidents have intervened more than 100 times in foreign countries since you left office," you said, "in most cases using military force unnecessarily." Do you think this is because the world is a more dangerous place? Or do you think that your successors have been too eager to intervene and use military force?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, maybe both. It's hard to say why. It's hard to believe that that's true, but it is. I've seen the statistics and anyone that wants to can look it up.

But, you know, when you invade Grenada, or when you invade Panama to capture a disreputable person, or when you bomb the Bosnia area, you can always find justification for those military actions, but it's really surprising how many times in those 25 years -- that's a long time -- the United States has interceded, I wouldn't say most of the time militarily, but a lot of those have been military actions.

And tens of thousands of people have died. And I can't say that I disagree with all of those military actions. For instance, I think it was fully justified after 9/11 to initiate a military action against Afghanistan, because we hoped to create a democracy, and have a flourishing economy, and to do away with al-Qaida, and to capture Osama bin Laden.

We didn't do any of those things. We made a mess out of Afghanistan, because we were so eager to go into Iraq. So Afghanistan was justified; Iraq was not. You can go down the list and make your own judgments.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Speaking of Iraq, any plans for you to go there?

JIMMY CARTER: No, I don't think so. I wouldn't be called upon to do that. One of the restraints on the Carter Center, as I mentioned in this book, is that we don't go into a sensitive area of the world -- politically speaking -- without approval from the White House. And sometimes those approvals are not easy to come by.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Jimmy Carter with yet another book, this one "Beyond the White House." Thank you very much for talking with us.

JIMMY CARTER: I've enjoyed it, Judy. Thank you.