National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Jimmy Carter

With much fanfare, NBC-TV News officially determined this week to call the “sectarian strife” in Iraq now a civil war, and who besides George Bush and anyone else with their own political skin tacked to a garage door, can say otherwise?

Of course, I could gloat that I called it so, as did plenty of others, somewhere around two years ago. That was back in the day when the White House did all the word-smithing for the major media, which dutifully complied without question. There was no such thing as an “insurgent” in Iraq for the longest time.

Now that the major media hacks discovered the American public really doesn’t want it slavishly repeating Bush administration spin on everything (you get the impression they were as shocked by the outcome of this month’s elections as the president was), they’re taking the brazen step of catching up with the obvious. Civil war, indeed, most regrettably.

Listening to Ex-President Jimmy Carter reminds me of my office manager. I am impatient with telemarketers or door-to-door salesmen, tending to be abrupt. I don’t want to waste my time, or theirs. No false expectations, no disappointments or pleading, let them think I’m whatever they want about me, but move on. My office manager, on the other hand, has a true gift. Also without dallying, but with what I’d call a sweet expedience, she has a way of making every salesman feel really good about themselves and like a candidate for her lifelong friend, even as she is hanging up the phone or shooing them out the door.

Jimmy Carter has always had a certain polite decorum that has cloaked, for many, an iron will. It’s what has made him a gifted diplomat, a deserving winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and a winner of one of the greatest diplomatic triumphs in history, the unforgettable and still-solid Egyptian-Israeli peace accord hammered out at Camp David in of April 1979. Not one iota of that accord between those ancient enemies has been violated in almost 38 years.

Carter has not a disingenuous, but a sincere, appreciation for the points of view of all sides in a dispute or dialogue and makes them feel like he’s empathizing.

For example, his comments on the Bush administration moving forward, while he’s so strongly disagreed with and even denounced many of its decisions, are not judgmental but constructive. He’s focused on the good things he thinks that Bush can still do, beginning with starting to listen to the commission of his daddy’s friends about Iraq and sticking to his guns about immigration reform and Latin American trade relations.

But don’t let that fool you about Mr. Carter. In an interview with Larry King on CNN Monday, his affable smile turned stern and his eyes fiery as he started to talk about the subject of his new book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” the current treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis in the occupied territories.

One of the virtues of live TV over a public event is that you get those intimate facial close ups, three-feet high in HD, where sometimes you can see the little lightning bolts fire off in someone’s eyes. Carter had a Zeus rampaging in his Monday night.

It’s refreshing to see such moral outrage, because there should be much more of it about such things than we normally see.

Carter remained civil and articulate. His eyes did the real talking. “This is one of the worst cases of oppression in the world. It is a horrendous depravation of basic human rights,” he said. What’s being done to the Palestinians by the occupation forces in Gaza and the West Bank is “a crime,” he reiterated.

He almost started to rant when Larry King had to put the brakes on him for a commercial.

Carter did not deny that there has been terror initiated on both sides in the conflict but said that a way to sustainable peace has to begin with the withdrawal of the Israeli occupation forces. “It must start with Israel complying with international law,” he said.

Grounds for peace exist in the resolution of 23 nations in Arab League affirming the right of Israel to exist within its borders, he noted. Only “avarice for Palestinian land by a minority of Israelis” prevents this, in his view.

He pointed his finger directly at the U.S. in this context. This issue, he noted, “has not been debated at all in this country,” in sharp contradiction to almost everywhere else in the world. That’s the major reason, he said, he wrote his latest book with such a provocative title. “I want to provoke a real discussion,” he said.

Secondly, Carter added that there “has not been one single day of substantive, good faith negotiations between Israel and her neighbors in the past six years.” He repeated that exact statement virtually word for word.

Six years, you know how long that is? That’s how long George Bush has been in the White House.