Jimmy Carter's Day in the Sun as a Top-Level Negotiator

IN midsummer of 1992 President Bush was so formidable politically that potential Democratic adversaries were all running away from seeking to run against him. Mario Cuomo said ``No.'' Thomas Foley and Richard Gephardt said they weren't interested. A young governor from Arkansas was talking about making the race. But all we knew about him was that he'd looked foolish at the last national convention by going on forever in his keynote speech.

In that vacuum of aspirants I came up with this suggestion in my column: ``Let me be the first (and perhaps only) observer of the political scene to suggest that if the Democrats want a potential presidential winner, they should take another look at a fellow who took them there before: Jimmy Carter.''

There was, as I later wrote, no ``thunderous response'' to this suggestion. It caused a little stir in the media. I heard indirectly that Mr. Carter smiled bemusedly when he read my column. But it didn't light a fire among Democrats who could have run with the idea.

At that time I talked to several key Democratic politicians about Carter. They all said in one way or another that he had ``had it.'' I told some of Carter's one-time political team about this response, to which one said, disgustedly, ``The party has a death wish.''

Carter has been proving quite convincingly since he left the presidency, and particularly in his private negotiations in North Korea and Haiti, that he certainly hasn't ``had it.'' Whatever else may be said of those performances, he has worked effectively to cool down the crises in both countries.

When the Nobel Prize committee looks at Carter, I think it will have to conclude that no matter how the United States involvement in Haiti plays out, the former president, along with Gen. Colin Powell and Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, prevented a US invasion of Haiti that could have caused the loss of many lives. Had not the agreement with Haitian leaders been forged in those last minutes of negotiation, there would have been an invasion. The planes were on their way. Senator Nunn credits Carter's ``doggedness'' for getting the job done.

President Bush's national security adviser, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, told breakfasters that Carter should be credited with doing a fine job. He qualifies this with the words, ``in the short run.'' He's not certain how the arrangement will work. But he said that no matter what happens next (he sees the possibility of the US falling into a morass in Haiti), Carter enabled Clinton to pull back from an invasion that could have been disastrous.

Most Americans and most members of Congress strongly opposed an invasion. Congress would probably have voted against it, had Clinton given them a chance to take up the issue. Also, most of the media were against the invasion. If the US military had invaded, Clinton would have faced a firestorm. It's arguable that the Carter trio, and particularly Carter as the leader, saved the president's bacon. At least for now.

In his roles as a top-level private negotiator, Carter has been acting - and been permitted to act - almost presidential. Rightly or wrongly, he was shaping policy in his dealings with Haiti's leaders. While Clinton had been calling them ``thugs'' who had created a ``nightmare of bloodshed'' and a ``reign of terror,'' Carter had a more benign view of these men. He said that to call Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras a dictator was ``dead wrong.'' Clinton then reshaped his harsh assessment to conform with the softer one of Carter's.

All this left the poor secretary of state, Warren Christopher, out of the picture and more than a little frustrated. If Carter wasn't acting like a president, he certainly was acting like a secretary of state.

I watched Carter carefully as he walked in with the president at the press conference the day after the invasion was called off. He was the shortest among Clinton, Powell, Nunn, and himself. But while he talked modestly and gave all the others due credit, Carter was most impressive. At least for the moment, he looked as presidential as the president.

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