Carter's Haitian Gambit

IT is one of the ironies of history that Jimmy Carter's ultimate reputation may be determined by Haiti, a little country of no international consequence that few United States citizens have visited or until now even focused upon.

After importuning an embattled President Clinton to let him negotiate, Mr. Carter was dispatched to Haiti to cut a deal that would avert an American invasion. For one climactic weekend he was the point man for US diplomacy, sidelining the administration's traditional foreign-policy apparatus. (While Carter was in tense negotiations in Haiti, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times discovered Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott making a Saturday afternoon sortie to the movies.) In a high-stakes gamble, Carter preempted the US invasion, thereby probably saving US and Haitian lives. But the ultimate success or failure of that gamble depends on a range of unanswered questions: Will the violence in Haiti cease? Will there be further loss of Haitian lives? Will there be loss of US lives? Can democracy flourish? Will we really get rid of the ruling military thugs?

Meanwhile, the Carter mission was conducted at some cost to the former president's credibility. For instance, Carter declared on Haitian soil, and in the presence of Mr. Clinton's antagonists, that he was ``ashamed'' of his country's policy. That was unconscionable. It has long been a tradition that US officials and politicians do not criticize their country on foreign soil.

Then again, Carter was captivated by the wife of Haitian strongman Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras. Mrs. Cedras is found far less charming by the Haitian masses who see her as a symbol of their suppression by the upper classes. Finally, Carter seemed to imbue with trust and honor the military thugs who have pillaged their country and repressed the political opposition.

It is this penchant for appeasement that dogs Carter's hopes that he can refurbish the image of an anemic presidency with a post-presidential string of diplomatic triumphs. Joshua Muravchik, a senior scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington specializing in human rights, believes Carter never met a dictator he didn't like. That may be too harsh a judgment, but there is a naively Neville Chamberlain-like air about Carter as he sits down to deal with dictators in such countries as North Korea and Haiti, confident that face-to-face bonhomie can convert them to good deeds.

It is puzzling how this most decent of human beings, with high personal principles, can be so politically inept.

I confess to having underestimated Carter in the past. When I was editor of The Christian Science Monitor, then-Atlanta bureau chief John Dillin kept bugging me to spend some time with a little-known Georgia politician named Jimmy Carter. John was remarkably prescient. I thought it was a waste of time. I was not alone. In 1976, 12 allegedly astute editors on the Pulitzer board were invited by James Reston of The New York Times to indicate by secret ballot whether they thought Carter could beat President Ford. As I recall, 10 or 11 of the board members, myself included, said no. Carter, of course, went on to become president.

Once, in a one-on-one interview near the end of his presidency, with a string of problems and embarrassments behind him, I asked Carter whether, if he had to do it again, he would not have made some different decisions. He thought for a moment, flashed his cherubic smile, and gave me a bemusing, one-word answer: ``No.''

It may be that this nicest of men, but weakest of presidents, can yet find the success he seeks in his post-presidential career of diplomacy. But high-level diplomacy requires high-level perception in discerning who are leaders of true goodness and who are charlatans and tyrants.

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