Jimmy Carter

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Former President Jimmy Carter says he has written a book critical of the Bush administration "with some hesitation and trepidation."

Not much hesitancy was on view Thursday morning, however, when the 39th president met reporters for a Monitor-sponsored breakfast. Among his charges: Members of the Bush team "decided to go to war against Iraq long before George Bush was elected."

Now that the United States is on the ground in Iraq, Mr. Carter said it would be "a very serious mistake preemptively to withdraw." But the Bush administration's decision to invade to prevent any future act of aggression from Saddam Hussein's Iraq came in for a scathing reproach. "The attitude of going to war against a relatively defenseless country in order to prevent violence in the world is a complete fallacy," Carter said.

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The likelihood that the US could leave Iraq "safely and with honor" would improve if the Bush administration were "to vow that we will actually withdraw from Iraq militarily," he said. "I don't think there is any inclination or desire in the leadership in this administration to withdraw militarily from Iraq at any time in the future."

Carter, who during his presidency in the late 1970s was deeply and personally involved in peace talks in the Middle East, said the US should "acknowledge that other countries ... have a right to have equal access to the ... economic benefits of associating with Iraq, primarily oil."

A devout Baptist and life-long Sunday school teacher, the former president also raised concerns about what he sees as an inappropriate intertwining of religion and government. He warned of "an increase in basic fundamentalism ... both within the religious community of our country and also within government, and an unprecedented and overt, not disguised, merger of the church and the state, of religion and politics."

Carter's faith figures prominently in his new book, "Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis," the 20th he has written since leaving the White House. Asked how his views of Christianity differed from those of Mr. Bush, the former president said, "I wouldn't want to criticize President Bush's Christian faith.... I don't have any doubt he is very sincere about his Christian faith."

But what followed was pointed. "I have a commitment to worship the Prince of Peace, not the prince of preemptive war. I believe Christ taught us to give special attention to the plight of the poor. In my opinion this administration, I am not talking about President Bush personally, has committed itself to extol the advantages of the rich."[Editor's note: The original version misquoted President Carter.]

It is decidedly unusual for a former president to publicly castigate the policies of a sitting president. Still, Carter saved some criticism for his own Democratic Party.

"Our party leaders now, some of them, are overemphasizing the abortion issue," Carter said. "Many Democrats, like me, have some concern, say, about late-term abortion.... And to make [defense of that practice] a litmus test I think hurts our party. Also in 2004, there was a substantial aversion [among] the Democratic leaders to demonstrate ... a compatibility with the deeply religious people of this country."

As for his own place in history, he said, "I can't deny that I am a better ex-president than I was a president." He added, "I would like to be remembered as someone who promoted peace and human rights."

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