Former president Jimmy Carter told NBC News last week that his work at home and abroad has been “superior” to other presidents.
“I feel that my role as a former president is probably superior to that of other presidents,” Carter assessed. “Primarily because of [my] activism and the injection of working at the Carter Center and in international affairs, and, to some degree, domestic affairs.”
In response to this boastful claim, we’ll hear the usual defenses: Carter misspoke. Carter is a good man. Carter has good intentions. I catch myself saying these things.
But even if well-intentioned, we shouldn’t avoid frank appraisals of Carter’s role.
In truth, and especially when it relates to foreign policy, Carter has done far worse than good. More, his failures have resulted from a remarkably strange trust in some awful dictators. Carter’s infamous naïveté has been destructive, long producing inferior results, not superior ones.
Carter has been so unique in this regard, and worse than other presidents, Democrat and Republican, that, in my latest book, Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century, we placed him on the cover as a symbol of duped Americans during the Cold War; specifically, the June 1979 photo of a smiling Carter kissing Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev. Carter did this as the Soviets were rapidly picking up more satellites worldwide than any time since the 1940s, and mere months before they invaded Afghanistan.
Sure, but Carter, in his NBC interview, was talking about his work as a former president, right? Yes, but that record isn’t much better.
If you think Carter was misled by Brezhnev, consider his statements in recent decades regarding Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, Fidel Castro, Yasir Arafat, Hamas, Iraq, Iran, and on and on. They take your breath away. I can’t list them all, but one case stands out – namely, Carter’s visit to the world’s most repressive state: Kim’s North Korea.
Carter made a June 1994 trip to this prison state, where he was manipulated on a grand scale. Other Westerners have made that trip and were subject to manipulation. The difference, however, is few took the bait, and none like Carter. Worse, Carter magnified the manipulation in reports at press conferences, in interviews, and in a piece for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
For starters, Carter dispelled speculation that Kim was dying. He found the aging despot “vigorous, alert, intelligent.” Kim died mere days after Carter’s visit.
Carter questioned the consensus that Kim was even a despot, telling Americans he observed a Kim engaged in “very free discussions with his ministers.” I’m sure that’s precisely what he saw.
Kim spearheaded a militantly atheistic regime. Yet, Carter, the born-again Baptist, found Kim “very friendly toward Christianity.”
Kim’s handlers marched Carter through their Potemkin village. Carter was totally hoodwinked, filing this incredible account of life in North Korea:
People are busy. They work 48 hours a week . We found Pyongyang to be a bustling city. The only difference is that during working hours there are very few people on the street. They all have jobs or go to school. And after working hours, they pack the department stores, which Rosalynn visited. I went in one of them. It’s like Wal-Mart in American stores on a Saturday afternoon. They all walk around in there, and they seem in fairly good spirits. Pyongyang at night looks like Times Square. They are really heavily into bright neon lights and pictures and things like that.
In truth, North Korea is a sea of darkness. The country at night is draped in black – that is, when the lights are not ablaze to fool high-profile visitors like President Carter – in empty contrast to South Korea, which is awash in the glow of freedom.
Within one year of Carter’s gushing appraisal, two to three million North Koreans (out of a population of 20 million) starved to death. They weren’t packing Wal-Mart; they were eating grass, bark from trees, and, in some cases, human corpses.
Recall, too, the nuclear agreement Carter brokered while there, and not exactly with the enthusiastic go-ahead of the Clinton administration. Carter stood outside the Clinton White House and triumphantly assured us that “the [nuclear] crisis is over” – words headlined by The New York Times and Washington Post. A few years later, North Korea announced it was a nuclear state, in direct violation of the “Agreed Framework.”