A Conversation With Jimmy Carter
Atlanta Meeting: HBO History Makers Series: A Conversation with Jimmy Carter
Former President Jimmy Carter discusses U.S. foreign policy.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Well, welcome, everybody. And just one quick announcement I wanted -- this is all part of the Council on Foreign Relations' History Makers series with President Carter. And the History Makers series focuses on the contributions made of a prominent individual at a critical juncture in U.S. foreign policy or international relations.
And on behalf of the council, which I'm a member of, I would like to thank Richard Pepler and HBO for their generous support of the series. Also, please turn off -- just not put on vibe -- your cellphones and BlackBerrys and wireless devices to avoid any kind of interference with our sound system.
I want to remind all council members that this meeting is on the record.
I'm going to, as a historian and an admirer of President Carter -- somebody who's studied him -- I'm going to ask him some questions for about a half an hour, and then we're going to be opening it up for Q and A from the audience. And simply put your hand up, and I'll call on you.
It's wonderful to see you, Mr. President.
And I thought we did start -- I was thinking about you a lot today in preparation coming here and growing up in Plains, Georgia, in a little town, what got -- what are your first thoughts as a boy growing up in a rural area about the outside world?
I know you had an uncle who spent time in China and a missionary. What were your first thoughts about all of that?
FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, when I was five years old, if anybody asked me what I wanted to do in the future, I would say I want to go to the Naval Academy and be a naval officer. My daddy was a first lieutenant in the First World War, and my uncle -- my favorite uncle, my youngest brother of my mother, was in the Navy. And he traveled in the Philippines and Japan and China and so forth and sent me a lot of mementos and letters back.
So between the two, between West Point and Annapolis, which was the only two free universities we knew about in those days, I chose Annapolis. So that was my longtime commitment.
Our life didn't really open up to the outside world, even including my father, until the rural electrification program came along. And my daddy was a leader in the REA program. And so he would travel to Chicago and different places and became very interested in international and national politics.
So I would say that was the thing that preceded it. But I went to four universities later. Annapolis was one of them. And so I graduated from Annapolis and served in the Navy for -- in all, 12 or a little bit more years. Came home and was a farmer for a long time and then decided to run for the state Senate, then governor, then president.
But when I was a young boy, I'd never thought about running for public office or serving that way.
BRINKLEY: When you were in the Navy, where did you go abroad? Do you remember when you were first on foreign soil?
CARTER: Yes. Well, my first submarine tour, I was in -- I was in battleships first which did experimental gun programs. And I was the electronics officer and the photography officer. And that was on two battleships, the Wyoming and the Mississippi.
And then I went in the submarine force and I was in the Pacific almost all the time. I was there during the Korean War, served out of Hawaii most of the time but also out of -- out of San Diego. And then I was transferred back from there to be the leading -- the only officer, as a matter of fact, on the first ship the Navy built after the Second World War, which was a very small, highly innovative, anti-submarine submarine. It was designed to stay deeply submerged, very quiet and attack Russians submarines or Soviet submarines without ever being detected.
And I was a successful young submarine officer. So when the nuclear program came on, I applied for it, along with every other young officer in the Navy, and I was chosen by Rickover as one of the two officers in charge of the development of the atomic submarine force.
BRINKLEY: Did your time in the Korean period or being in Asia -- did you form any -- what were your early impressions of coming from Plains and now, suddenly, you're all over in the Pacific basin?
CARTER: I would say that the main thing that affected me later as a president was my visit to the China coast in 1949. Our submarine was operating in and out of the seaports along the coast; Shanghai and all the way up to Tsingtao, which is now Quindao.
And so I got to see the transformation in China between the nationalist Chinese forces who were just occupying a few of the seaports and the communist forces whose campfires we could see on the hillsides. And then they left the mainland and moved to Taiwan just a few months after I left China. So I saw the birth of China which, by the way, was born on my birthday, October the 1st, 1949.
And I think that has precipitated my intense interest in China ever since.
And nowadays, I go to China almost every year. We have massive programs in China in democracy and health and that sort of thing. And I meet with the Chinese leaders. In fact, I meet with -- I've met with Xi Jinping who came over to the United States recently. I had already met with him three times because the Chinese leaders, because a normalized diplomatic relations, want me to know their present and future leaders, and they want to acquaint me with their programs.
So I would say that's the main thing that I did in the Navy that later precipitated a special interest in the White House and China.
BRINKLEY: I teach a class on Cold War history, and we talk about -- to my students -- about China, many people think that it was Nixon and Kissinger that recognized or started diplomatic relations.
What was it like when you became president, and how did that -- what were some of the decisions you had to make to lead to diplomatic normalization?
CARTER: Well, I was very interested in that. As a matter of fact, earlier that year in 1972, Ted Kennedy came and told me that he was planning on a secret trip to China. And that was probably known by Kissinger and Nixon who, I'd say, accelerated their plan.
And they visited there, I think in September '72. And they declared that there was only one China. But they wouldn't say which one. And from then on, until I came into office, there was many disavowal of what Nixon had done to China under him and then President Ford.
So when I was running for president, I decided without any help from outside that I wanted to proceed and normalize diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China and sever diplomatic relations with the nationalist Chinese and Taiwan. So I made that decision before I became president.
And as soon as I got to be in the White House, I began to have secret contacts with the Chinese. And in 1978, we escalated our efforts. And, in December of '78, we finally reached agreement between me and Deng Xiaoping on the format and schedule of normal relations.
So until '79, the United States still recognized Taiwan as the only China -- as one of two Chinas, but as the main China. And so I decided to cast my lot with the People's Republic of China. And I think it has had a dramatic effect not only on American-Chinese relationships but on the world political arena.
BRINKLEY: What was Deng Xiaoping like as a person?
CARTER: Dynamic, aggressive. I think he will go down in history -- and already has gone down in history -- as the number-two Chinese leader in the esteem of the Chinese people second only to Mao Zedong.
And Deng Xiaoping was a reformer. In fact, we normalized relations -- announced it on the 15th of December. Three days later, he announced change and reform in China which was a transformation between China as a closed society and one that reached out tentacles now all over the world.
And it led, I think -- my normalization with China led to their opening up completely the opportunity for economic freedom. He invited me over to China right after '79. I didn't go until '81 because of the hostage crisis in America in Iran.
But in '81, I went over there, and Deng Xiaoping had just begun the very earliest stages of free enterprise. And that was to let farmers only -- if you lived in a village, you couldn't participate -- but farmers only could have 15 percent of the land in the cooperatives -- in the agricultural cooperatives. And they could have one project. You could make horse shoes, or you could repair bicycles, or you could have five chickens or five pigs. And that was it. And you could keep the profit from those enterprises, which was revolutionary in China at that time.
And then later, it extended to little villages and into larger and larger city. And now, of course, China is almost completely free economically. And so that was the origin of that was a transformation of the domestic life in China as well as an international life where China is now the most rapidly burgeoning influence, I would say, in international politics.
BRINKLEY: Were you -- I noticed when I did research on you how beloved you are in China by a lot of people. Do you feel a special treatment when you go there because of your --
CARTER: Well, I do. I have special treatment. When I get there, I'm treated like a king or a queen or an incumbent president. I have -- no matter where I go, I'm welcomed. And I have, you know, police escort at every move I make.
And if I want to visit any particular person in China -- a scientist or a professor or a specialist in a particular issue, or sometimes even leaders in the Christian community, they never turn me down. And if I want to meet Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao or, I should say, Xi Jinping, they want me to meet the present and the future leaders of China.
And quite often, they talk to me quite frankly -- I think always -- quite frankly and with a lot of respect about sensitive issues, for instance, North Korea, things of that kind.
BRINKLEY: You know, when we're thinking about China, people often talk about human rights. And nobody has been president that's put the term human rights in our parlance like you. I think Eleanor Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter are just synonymous with it.
How is China doing on human rights? Are they improving? And do you have any concerns?
CARTER: They're improving, and I have concerns. Compared to where it was in '79, it's like night and day. And so, for instance when I first went there, there was no religious freedom. Any person could not travel from one village to another without permission from Beijing.
And there was absolutely no opportunity for a person to earn a dollar and keep it -- or money and keep it. There was no personal freedom of any kind.
Now, all of that has changed dramatically. They haven't gone far enough I would say particularly because of Tibet and Taiwan, which is still considered by the Chinese to be an integral part of their country. But in Tibet's case, the Dalai Lama is a constant reminder that their culture and their religion are being restrained by the central government.
And Taiwan, as you know, has had estrangement. Right at this moment, there's probably the best harmony between Taiwan and the mainland that there has been in the last 30 years.
So I would say that, overall, China has been dramatically changed with a hundred percent freedom in economics, but the government still has an integral role to play. In human freedoms, they've changed dramatically as well. They still have a ways to go.
For instance, I just met with the president of the Southern Baptist Convention a few minutes ago. And there are churches in China that are complete free to worship as they choose. They also choose to register with the government. There are other churches that refuse to register with the government. And they're pretty well left alone unless they make a public proclamation of disavowal of the government's influence.
So I would say that there's been a lot of progress made but still some avenues which, by American standards, still need to be improved.
BRINKLEY: I want to shift gears to the Panama Canal. And it's, of course, getting widened.
You put a lot of political capital in Panama right out of the gate, and you just were determined to do it. What made you decide to push Panama early in your presidency?
CARTER: Well, as you know, being a historian, all the way from Eisenhower up to Johnson, Nixon, Ford, all the way down to me, there were promises made to the Panamanians to treat them fairly on the ownership and control of the canal. But the political pressures in America, particularly in the U.S. Senate, were so enormous that no president was willing to tackle that -- you know, that hornet's nest.
And I decided to do it regardless. So as soon as I became president, I decided to have -- to have diplomatic efforts made to formulate a treaty by which we could turn over control of the Panama Canal to the -- to the people of Panama.
And I had a worthy compatriot there as well. So we negotiated secretly and then finally were successful in formulating two treaties -- one that lasted until the year 2000, and one that lasted after the year 2000.
And I would say the biggest political challenge of my life, much more difficult than getting elected president, was getting two-thirds of the members of the U.S. Senate to approve the Panama Canal treaties.
I still believe -- and I always will -- that it was the most courageous single action that the U.S. Senate has ever taken in the history of our country. For instance, we had 20 senators who voted for the canal treaties that were up for re-election in 1978. Of those 20, only seven came back to the Senate the next year.
And in 1980, the attrition rate was almost as great. The people that voted for the Panama Canal treaties were stigmatized in our country -- and particularly, by then, Governor Reagan and others in the campaign.
So there was a great attrition there, but the senator knew that it was politically unpopular, but it was the right thing to do.
And since the canal was taken over by Panama, there's been more than a five-fold increase in the revenue of the canal to the Panamanian people. And as you have just mentioned, they are now expanding the canal so it will be twice as able to conduct ships of much more larger size.
By the way, it's still unpopular. In the year 2000, when we actually turned over control of the canal to the Panamanian people, President Clinton was in office. He didn't want to be to Panama. His secretary of state wouldn't go. None of his Cabinet officers wanted to go. So that was the only time that Clinton asked me to do something on his own volition. (Laughter.)
He asked me to go and turn over the canal to the Panamanians which I was glad to do. So I went basically with the people that had worked with me in negotiating the treaty.
And then later, when they expanded the canal and were ready to open up the second canal site, President Bush was in office. He didn't want to go, and none of his Cabinet wanted to go. So they asked me to go again. And I helped push the plunger that set off a dynamite that started escalating.
BRINKLEY: Oh, did you? (Laughter.)
CARTER: Yeah. So the Panamanian people look on the Carter-Torrijos Treaty as one of the turning points in their life -- as the Chinese do, you know, in that respect.
BRINKLEY: Now, when you -- as ex-president or former president, in 1989, you went and monitored the election in Panama of General Noriega. And you felt it was not an honest election and you said so.
Do you think because of the Panama Canal Treaty, the Panamanian people trusted you?
CARTER: Yes, that's true. I'm still kind of a hero in Panama. They don't call it the Panama Canal Treaty. They call it the Torrijos-Carter Treaty. And so they remember my name, and I have been there often. In fact, we have spent three Christmas vacations -- my whole family has -- in Panama since I left there.
But it was -- when we went to monitor that election -- which, the first time, you know, an outside group had monitored an election was in Panama. It was, obviously, orchestrated by Noriega. His candidates lost abysmally, but he claimed they won. And we monitored it very closely, and I announced that it was a fraudulent election.
And he made it very difficult for me to stay there. So we kind of escaped in the middle of the night with people throwing stones at our car and so forth.
But my voice -- I'm not bragging now, but I'm answering your question. My voice was so powerful about having stigmatized that election that his three candidates never even tried to take office. So later, they had to have another election which was an honest election. We were there again, and the Panamanian diplomat -- democratic voice was heard.
BRINKLEY: And you became very beloved in Latin America in general. And you speak Spanish?
BRINKLEY: Do you -- when you go to a Latin American country, will you speak Spanish or do you --
CARTER: Yeah. When I speak to the Congress in Mexico or Venezuela or anywhere, when I have a press conference, quite often, I speak in Spanish. Sometimes, though, in an interview where the nuances of a word is very important, I prefer to have it translated by a professional because I don't know the nuances of different meanings of words.
So, yes. The answer is yes.
BRINKLEY: How did you become fluent in Spanish --
CARTER: I'm not fluent, but I can get by. I studied Spanish at the Naval Academy, and I learned -- my sailor language was different from the diplomatic language that I -- (laughter).
BRINKLEY: That you had to use later.
CARTER: But I've had an interest in Spanish. In fact, this past summer, I had both my knees replaced, and I was pretty well incapacitated for three months. I couldn't move around. So my wife and I had a professor from Georgia Southwestern University come in and give us Spanish lessons in the morning just to refresh particularly Rose's ability to speak in Spanish.
So I still try to use Spanish.
BRINKLEY: Does it make a difference in Latin America or anywhere -- but let's just say Latin America -- that you're a president of the United States and you've taken the time to learn their language even if it's limited? Do you think that's a --
CARTER: I think so. Well, in 1978, I went to Venezuela and I announced there the Humphrey Fellowships. And I made the announcement in Spanish, for instance. And I went over to Sub-Saharan Africa, the first president to ever visit down there. I don't think there's any doubt that the Spanish people, almost everywhere, really appreciate it if you try to speak Spanish even if you fumble with the words.
It's quite different I understand in France, where if you don't speak perfect French -- (laughter) -- they don't appreciate, you know, the fallible effort.
But yes -- and my favorite place to go vacationing is in Spain. I take one or two of my children or maybe three or four of us at a time, and we travel around Spain maybe 10 days at a time and just stop in different places. And we all practice our Spanish.
BRINKLEY: Let me shift gears to -- you're really an early proponent of alternative energy. And so with the White House, they put solar panels on the White House. You were talking about keeping thermostats down and keeping -- you know, America being more conscious of energy and wasting it and created the Department of Energy.
Do you -- how are we -- I mean, what's your concern about big oil today? Do you have a concern? Did you, as president, think that the oil industry was going to be too strong or --
CARTER: It was strong when I was president. And for four years, they pretty well blocked the major efforts that I made with the windfall profits tax and that sort of thing.
They even opposed the deregulation of oil and gas because they were making so much profit with fixed prices that, when I made the prices competitive, they didn't approve of that.
But we were able to fight down their opposition despite their enormous, I would say, lobbying capability at those -- in those days. But big oil is much more capable as a lobbyist now than it was back in those days. In fact, every lobbyist is more powerful now than they were then, particularly since the Supreme Court's stupid ruling that, you know, corporations can give unlimited amounts of money to a campaign.
So I would say that they were very powerful then and much more powerful -- much more powerful now.
BRINKLEY: What was your personal -- you put so much personal energy into energy conservation, and you're also one of the great conservationist presidents with what you did in Alaska and many other places. And you wrote a book about the outdoor life.
Did your love of the land and being a good steward and conservationist have an influence on you as president when you were thinking about, you know, alternative energy?
CARTER: Well, there's no doubt about that. I was very concerned about the excessive waste of energy in this country and excessive dependence on uncertain sources of supply in foreign countries. So we had a very complicated program, but three basic things.
One is to increase production in our own country; secondly, to have strict conservation; and third was to use replenishable energy supplies that come from the sun.
So we had -- in totality, we had a very effective program implemented. A lot of it is still on the books. That is, it's still pervasive. The insulation of homes and the efficiency of automobiles and stoves and refrigerators and things of that kind, and electric motors and all. All of that efficiency part is still in practice.
But the automobile and oil industry has been so powerful since I let office that the rapid increase in efficiency -- mandatory efficiency of automobiles and trucking has been pretty well abandoned. We've now re-established goals for the future, and I hope they will be maintained.
But it's hard to imagine how effective the automobile industry and the oil companies combined were then and the oil companies particularly now in shaping the outcome of decisions made in the Congress.
BRINKLEY: How concerned are you on global environmental issues? Climate change? Global warming? Whenever way you want to call it, are you --
CARTER: I would say up until the Rio conference, when George Bush, Sr., was president, the United Nations was in the forefront of dealing with environmental issues. We were looked upon as a champion of the environment. And now, we are one of the worst laggards. We are holding back the rest of the world as we move toward having more efficiency of the use of energy, among other things, and dealing with the threat to the environment of increased gas production for the stratosphere -- global warming.
And I think that it's because of political pressures, again, which is a very severe indictment or, I'd say impediment, to the proper action of our government. So we have, under George W. Bush and also under President Obama, we have pretty well abandoned any sort of leadership in dealing with those threats to the environment in the future.
I just came back from Norway last week, for instance, and the Europeans will still be moving forward in the Rio+20 which is 20 years after George H.W. Bush was a leader of setting standards which we've now abandoned.
But I think that the Europeans are still trying to maintain some leadership capability in the absence of American leadership.
BRINKLEY: You mentioned being in Oslo. That was the "group of the (sic) Elders" you met with. Right?
BRINKLEY: What is the "group of Elders?" You hear about it, and it's -- and for people that aren't familiar with it --
CARTER: Well, you might say it's a group of political has-beens. You know, we are people who have served in important positions in the past and are now no longer involved in the direct day-to-day political debates and so forth.
Nelson Mandela is a senior one. His wife, Graca Machel, is also an elder. Bishop Tutu is one. Kofi Annan, former head of the United Nations. We have, in addition, the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson; the former president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year; and former prime minister of Norway, Gro Brundtland, who is also the head of the WHO, World Health Organization; President Cardoso, who is the former leader of Brazil; 10 of us now.
And so we meet a couple of times a year, and we try to take on issues that are important. And it requires some, I'd say, political insensitivity. I won't use the word courage. But we're pretty well immune now from pressures from constituencies or from special-interest groups so we can go where we want to, talk to whom we choose and say what we believe.
BRINKLEY: I want to mention the Cold War and the Soviet Union during the presidency. We have an Olympics coming up. And that was a very tough decision you made on boycotting of the Moscow Olympics. What was the process of -- how did that decision come to fruition? Do you feel today it was the right decision?
CARTER: Well, as a matter of fact, I didn't make the decision because I didn't have any official position. But I had some influence.
The Congress voted, I think, 330 votes to 3 not to participate in the Olympics. And the U.S. Olympic Committee voted 2 to 1 not to go to the Olympics. And I agreed with that.
Whether it was the right decision, I don't really know. But I think it was one of the things that we did that let the world know that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan should be severely condemned. And it was when they were going to be the host of the Olympics. And there is a premature preemptive thinking that if you go to the Olympics, you basically approve the policies -- not a hundred percent -- of the host country.
And I thought that the Soviet Union then was a pariah country and that we shouldn't honor them by going to the Olympics.
But, you know, I met with the Olympic team that couldn't go. I met with -- I think two of them refused to meet with me, but the other hundred came. And I sympathized with them. I think most of them understood.
The Soviet Union, four years -- I think four years later, didn't want to come much to Los Angeles. It was an aberration in the Olympics which I thought was unfortunate. But that's one of the decisions I made as president that I have never been sure was the right one.
BRINKLEY: What about -- you were very heroic once you embraced Sakharov and the dissidence in the Soviet Union. Were you concerned, as president, about human rights in the Soviet Union or just FDR's four freedoms --
CARTER: No, we were very concerned. I saw the possibility while I was president of emphasizing human rights not only in Latin America where most of the countries at that time were dictatorships and in other parts of the world like in China, but also in the Soviet Union because that was a way that I could penetrate into the very heart and soul of the population of the Soviet Union because three or four of the most notable human rights heroes knew that they were friends of mine.
And I would ostentatiously bring their names up when I met with Brezhnev, and I would sometimes send personal letters to them which they would hold up in front of TV cameras. So the whole world knew that I personally was insisting on the Soviet Union obeying its commitments at the Helsinki agreement which took place earlier. And so we pursued that as well.
So I think it was one of the few ways that I had peacefully to let the Soviet people know that they should insist on their own government honoring the big principles of the democracy and freedom. And I think it had a profoundly important impact on what happened in the Soviet Union.
BRINKLEY: How is Russia doing today? Is it a democracy, do you feel?
CARTER: It's a semi-democracy now. I think the re-election of Putin has been a setback for the premise of Soviet democracy -- now Russian democracy. And of course, the other countries are doing, in varying ways, well or not so well. So I think they are struggling, also, with the early stages of democracy. The Carter Center doesn't have a direct involvement in the Soviet Union or its former satellite elements.
We primarily conform with places where the United States or the United Nations is not directly involved. We have programs now in about 73 countries in the world, and it's not an accident that half of them are in Africa. And then we have programs in six countries in Latin America, health programs. So we concentrate on other parts of the world, but I think that true democracy and freedom in the Soviet Union is still a time to come.
BRINKLEY: You mentioned Africa, and you've probably done more than any American to keep Africa on our consciousness. And it always shocked me -- you kind of slipped it in there -- but you were the first president -- I think you went to Nigeria as president, just briefly --
BRINKLEY: Or you were in Liberia. And there was nobody before. Why is the Carter Center focused on Africa, and when did that interest become so intense for you?
CARTER: Well, we had a big altercation which not many people remember now in bringing Zimbabwe into effect as a non-apartheid regime. And we had a major effect, too -- I and Fritz Mondale, my vice president -- in trying to bring about an end to apartheid in South Africa, calling for one person, one vote and that sort of thing, despite the fact that it was not popular even in our own country.
As a matter of fact, the boycott effort against apartheid in South Africa was severely condemned by Ronald Reagan when he became president. He thought it was a bad mistake to interfere with the apartheid regime there. So I would say that my term in office, particularly with Andrew Young as my ambassador to the United Nations, really brought the plight of Africa and the opportunities and promise of Africa to my direct attention, perhaps more than any of my predecessors.
So it was not an accident that I did go to Liberia and went to Nigeria. In fact, President Obasanjo, who was the president then, later was re-elected the president of Nigeria. And the Carter Center now has -- we have massive programs in Liberia at this time, as well as in Nigeria. So we have programs now in about 35 African countries -- primarily health programs, but also in agriculture, in the past, and also now monitoring elections. So particularly in the Arab Spring, which is in the northern part of Africa -- we're deeply involved there.
BRINKLEY: You're mentioning the Arab Spring, and I know you're going to be going, leaving soon for Egypt. And the great accomplishment of the Camp David Accords and your friendship with Anwar Sadat -- so why don't we just touch on that a little bit, particularly on Egypt? How did you become such close personal friends with Anwar Sadat, almost more than any other world leader?
CARTER: More than any other world leader. I don't know what happens to generate a personal friendship. You've got them in your life, and it's hard to explain how that evolves. But the first time I met Sadat, there was a kind of a bonding of his consciousness with mine, you might say his heart and soul and mine. His wife was friendly with my wife -- our children were friends with each other, our grandchildren were friends with each other.
So Sadat, in his first private meeting with me upstairs in the White House, pledged to do all he could to bring about a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel. This was before I had broached this concept publicly to the American people. But I had Sadat on my side, you might say, increasingly willing to do things, from the very beginning of our acquaintance.
So for instance, when we got to Camp David, Sadat came a few hours before Begin -- Menachem Begin, prime minister of Israel. And Sadat said, in effect, my good friend, Jimmy -- which is what he always called me -- anything you want in this next days of negotiation, you speak for Egypt, with two provisos: One, we have to have rights for the Palestinians, and all the Israelis have to withdraw from Egyptian territory. But outside of that, it's in your hands.
So for instance, when I decided to start at Camp David on a peace treaty, which came six months later, I wrote out on a scratch pad my proposal of what a peace treaty should comprise. I took it to Sadat. He said, everything here is OK, but let's be a little bit more generous to Israel. Why don't we keep my forces 20 kilometers from the border instead of just 10 kilometers, and why don't we limit the amount of armaments I can put in the Sinai region a little bit more stricter than what you've put down here? So the only changes he made in the peace treaty proposal was just to make it easier for Israel to accept. That was the relationship we had.
BRINKLEY: Where were you when he was assassinated?
CARTER: I was in my home, and I got a call immediately from Egypt when it happened. And the people on the phone, who were friends of mine, told me that Mubarak had just announced that Sadat had survived, which turned out to be a lie.
But it was a statement that Mubarak made to minimize the disturbance in Egypt immediately after Sadat's death. And when they called me back a couple of hours later or maybe an hour later and told me that Sadat had died, I really cried without control for the first time since my father died. I was so aggrieved to see that heroic man die because of the agreement that he had consummated with me and Begin.
BRINKLEY: Did you have any relationship with Mubarak at all?
CARTER: Yes, Mubarak was Sadat's hand-chosen deputy and was a leader in the Egyptian air force. And he was vice president, so quite often, when Sadat sent me a private letter while I was in the White House, he would let Mubarak deliver the letter to me. And on occasion, the envelope would be unsealed. Sometimes it would be sealed, but on occasion, it would be unsealed to show me that he trusted Mubarak, you know, to share, if Mubarak wanted to on the way, the message that we received.
So when Mubarak took over, of course, he rapidly made changes that Sadat would not have approved, but I think that in general, Mubarak has maintained a special relationship with me. About six months later, the Coptic pope was in house arrest, for instance, under Mubarak. And a bunch of Coptic bishops -- I think 30 of them -- dressed up in their black robes and came to see me in my one-room office that the Carter Center had over at Emory campus.
And they told me that since the Coptic pope was under house arrest, they couldn't promote or ordain a new bishop. They couldn't ordain pastors. And so I called Mubarak on the phone and made a personal appeal to him to let the pope go to St. Mark's Cathedral, and he did. So you know, I've used my relationship with Mubarak a few times since then.
BRINKLEY: When you're heading over to Cairo now, what does the Arab Spring -- it's become a word we're all talking about, but I mean, what does it mean and what is going on in Egypt right now? Has this been a positive development in the last year?
CARTER: I think it has been. Well, we just have finished monitoring the election in Tunisia, and recently, we've been in Algeria and, also, Libya, preparing for the future. And of course, we've been in Egypt monitoring that election since November. The Carter Center has a special status in Egypt. We don't have to qualify as an NGO -- a nongovernmental organization -- like the National Democratic Institute or the International Republican Institute have to do, or others. The Carter Center is sacrosanct. We're just automatically approved.
So I see news reports every now and then that the Carter Center and others have been disapproved. Those are not true. I got on the phone with the leader of the election commission, and I talked to them, and they said, OK, the Carter Center is approved to witness the election. You don't have to qualify as an NGO since it's your organization. So we're there, and we've been there without leaving since November. I was there, personally, to head up the delegation for the final stages of the parliamentary elections. And I'll be going back this weekend to monitor the election for president, which is scheduled for the 23rd and 24th of this month.
BRINKLEY: You have so much energy, and you travel so many places. Do you still feel as driven as ever to go and be engaged?
CARTER: No, I have a lot more relaxed feeling now. You know, since I've left the White House, I'm not running for public office. I've got Secret Service protection the rest of my life, so I do what I want to do. And the description I made earlier of the "Elders" -- that we go where we want to, we meet with who we choose, we say what we believe -- that's really the policies of the Carter Center.
So I'm free to go to Cuba when I want to and meet with the Castro brothers to try to iron out differences and try to get the unconscionable embargo lifted. I go to North Korea when I want to. I meet with the leaders of North Korea to try to iron out their differences with South Korea and to bring back messages from them to our country, to South Korea, and also to China. I might be going back again this year; I was there last year.
So we are able to do things in a fairly free way. But the fact is that I have a big agenda -- or you might say a menu that is presented to me, you might say, daily or monthly or whatever -- and I can either choose to do or not do things. And now the Carter Center has grown into an organization adequate in size so that other people can replace me when I don't go. Early on, I had to go to every election. I had to be there every minute. I had to organize every event, like this one, every conference. Now I don't have to do those things. So I just do what I want to now. (Laughter.)
BRINKLEY: I'm going to ask you about just a few major world leaders that you've met, and then we're going to open it up to the audience. I'll be very brief -- just maybe three. Fidel Castro -- what's he like, personally?
CARTER: He's intelligent, dynamic still, popular -- isolated now. When I met, recently, with his brother, I went over and paid a courtesy call to Fidel Castro. He studies, every day, the most detailed news analysis from 20 different news sources, and he writes a weekly editorial. And his brother waits with great trepidation to see what the hell, you know, Fidel is going to say this week. (Laughter.)
But I think he's basically turned over control of political affairs to his brother, Raul, who is seven years younger than he. So I would say that Fidel and his brother -- this is conjecture on my part -- but I would say that they are still adequately popular in Cuba that if they should go to a democracy, they could still prevail for a few elections in the future. But we strengthen their totalitarian government by the unconscionable embargo that we've placed against the 12 million Cuban people.
So the Castro brothers, despite their horrible failures as Communists, are able to blame their problems on the United States of America, and most of the Cuban people believe it, although there are exceptions to the rule. So I think that one of the worst things that our government continues to do -- the president and, also, Congress -- because of misplaced political concerns is to maintain this embargo against their people.
BRINKLEY: Why don't we open it up now to the audience, if we could? And how about up here in the front row, middle?
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Mr. President --
CARTER: Are these questions for Doug or me?
QUESTIONER: Let's start with you.
CARTER: OK, all right.
QUESTIONER: Mr. President; Mark Vlasic. I'm a professor at Georgetown. Thank you very much for having us today. Earlier in my life, I served as a prosecutor at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, and today is the first day in the trial of Radko Mladic, the general from Srebrenica that slaughtered 8,000 people. On this day, I wanted to see if you could comment on the role of international tribunals as a movement for justice in helping bring more human rights to the world. Thank you.
CARTER: The Carter Center was in the forefront of establishing the International Criminal Court, and as you know, it's been basically opposed by our own government. And of course, we are not members of the ICC, either, although we try to benefit from its successes and decry its shortcomings. So we've been in favor of that from the beginning, I think not only to punish war criminals after the crimes are committed but also to deter others who might be tempted to go down the same path.
So I think that the trial of Mladic will be compatible, and maybe go parallel, in some ways, to his boss, Karadzic, who has been under trial for a long time, and obviously, Milosevic, earlier, who died before his trial was completed. So it's a long, drawn-out, tedious process, and when we were in The Hague about a year ago, now -- at another meeting of the "Elders," by the way -- we went and met with the International Criminal Court.
All of their judges came to explain to us the great difficulty of going forward with their programs, primarily because of a lack of cooperation from the United States but also the importance, they thought, of doing the things that I just described to you. So I think it will be a long, tedious process, and eventually Karadzic, and also Mladic, will be found guilty. That's my anticipation or my guess.
BRINKLEY: Wonderful. Yes, sir? Megan will bring the mike over.
QUESTIONER: Mr. President, Eason Jordan, a journalist and friend. I wanted to ask you, sir, historically you have --
CARTER: Where are you from, Eason?
QUESTIONER: I'm from right here in Atlanta.
CARTER: Eason is one of my oldest and best friends. Go ahead, Eason.
QUESTIONER: Thank you, sir. I wanted to ask you, sir, historically, you've always fought for what you thought was morally right, regardless of the political consequences. So as you look at the world today, what do you think the U.S. should be doing if you could name three things the U.S. should do that would be morally right, regardless of the political consequences?
CARTER: I've already mentioned one of them, and that is lift the embargo against Cuba. I think, also, support the outcome of the elections in Egypt enthusiastically. We have been concerned in our government and have made some deleterious comments a year ago -- and going forward Mubarak was overthrown -- because we're concerned about the Arabs taking over or the Muslims taking over.
We have to remember that 90 percent of the people that live in Egypt are Muslims, and it shouldn't be any surprise to anyone that the Muslim Brotherhood and others are now taking over the leadership role in the parliament. We should give them full and unequivocal support, and we should continue to support -- which I approve -- their demand that the opposition step down. I think the overall programs, too, on human rights -- we've now backed off into a secondary position, and we're in probably the worst position of any country in the world on environmental quality.
We are no longer in the forefront of the environmental movement, and we are looked upon now as violators of human rights. If you look down, for instance, the 29 paragraphs in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was written partially by Eleanor Roosevelt, the United States is now violating seven of those 29, blatantly.
And so we don't comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in dealing with criminals -- those who are accused and also encroaching on American policies. So I think human rights, environmental quality and promoting democracy -- let the people themselves decide what kind of democracy they want in the Arab Spring and other places -- and Cuba. I gave you four. That's a bonus.
BRINKLEY: Thank you. Let me go back there. Ma'am?
QUESTIONER: Hi, I'm Jennifer Leonard; I'm with the International Crisis Group. We're an NGO -- conflict-prevention NGO. You opened the door, maybe, to a discussion on Syria. So could you share your thoughts about where we are -- you know, if you were sitting back in the Oval Office, what your prescription -- response would be? And maybe talk as well about international partners in the effort, too.
CARTER: Well, one of our fellow "Elders" is Kofi Annan, who has stepped down temporarily from the "Elders" in order to lead the peace process, so-called, in Syria. The Carter Center had a delegation in Syria two weeks ago. They spent almost a week there meeting with the government leaders under Assad and also meeting with some of the revolutionary groups that are inside Syria. And we also went to Turkey and met with some of them there. I think that this is one of the elements of transition.
There's no doubt in my mind that Assad is going to be terminated as a leader. My own preference is that the United States should give full and unequivocal support to the Kofi Annan movement, but in opposition to that, we decided early last autumn, if not earlier, that Assad had to go. And so we've made that preemptory decision, and we have left the revolutionary groups isolated without our support.
Now, of course, we're giving them indirect military aid, I understand from news reports. That's the only source I have. So I think we should commit ourselves completely to Kofi Annan's program and insist that Assad relinquish control of his government over with a democratic process, and I feel sure that he would be defeated. So it's a very complex question. As you know, the Alawites and most of the Christians and others fear a Sunni Muslim takeover in Syria, so there are two sides to the issue.
But I've known President Assad since he was a college student when he was studying ophthalmology in London. I know him. I know his wife; I know his children. I've had meals with them, and I've talked to him. And he's been a very horrendous disappointment to me, the brutal way he's reacted to this. But I think the only game in town, so far as I see it now, is the Kofi Annan plan, which has been adopted by the United Nations, which needs the full support of the United States.
BRINKLEY: Very good. Yes, sir, over there. And then we'll hit this side of the room.
QUESTIONER: Good afternoon, Mr. President. Thank you for hosting us here at the library today. My name is Danny Labin (sp). I'm a television producer based in the Middle East, and I worked very closely on an Israeli-Palestinian "Sesame Street" that was predicated on bringing Israeli and Palestinian children in the region together using media.
And I wanted to pick up on your question -- hypothetically, if you were back in the Oval Office today, how might you apply the success of having mediated the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt to the Israelis and the Palestinians and their current leadership? If you were to host them at Camp David today, what would you recommend as the formula to success?
CARTER: Well, if I've had one undeviating foreign policy commitment and personal prayer for the last 30 years, it's been peace for Israel, which means, also, obviously, peace for Israel's immediate neighbors, including the Palestinians. So as I mentioned Sadat's requirement on me that Palestinian rights be guaranteed -- we have to remember that there were two aspects of the Camp David agreement -- full Palestinian rights on the one hand, and a treaty between Israel and Egypt.
The treaty has never been violated. Not a single word in that treaty has been violated by either Egypt or Israel. The Palestinian rights commitment of the Israelis has been completely violated, and Israel is now proceeding to form a one-state solution to that process, which I think will be a devastating blow to Israel. So there's no commitment in Israel, apparently, in their government -- certainly, the way it is now; it may change in the next few months -- to a two-state solution based on withdrawal by Israel from the occupied territories -- which means toward the '67 borders, modified through negotiation with land swaps.
And I think that's the only avenue to peace. And I think that the Arab Spring, to answer the other part of your question, might very well be a step in the right direction because with a change in leadership in Egypt, the entire process had been completely stalemated in this past two or three years. George W. Bush made some progress with the Annapolis meeting and that sort of thing, but we haven't had any progress since then except the beautiful speech made by President Obama in Cairo calling for an end to settlements.
And later, I think, in the following May, he called for the '67 borders with some modifications. He's backed away from all that now. So I would say that at this point, the United States has zero influence among the Palestinians and almost zero influence in Israel, as well. I think the Palestinian cause will be improved, hopefully in a completely nonviolent way, when and if the Arab -- when the Muslim Brotherhood take over as the leaders in Egypt, no matter who the elected president might be.
And I think that will strengthen the effort made to have harmony between Fatah and Hamas, as well as to have an honest democratic election in the Palestinian area and then maybe with productive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. It may be that a new coalition with Kadima coming in with Likud will give Netanyahu more flexibility. But the rest of the world, including the European leaders with whom I meet regularly every time I go over there and urge them to take a stronger role, they still are deferring to the United States of America.
And so we have withdrawn completely from any beneficial influence in that troubled area. Right now, there's a sensitive peace, and I think that Hamas and Fatah will be encouraged in the future, maybe, by the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and their influence in other countries, as well, besides Egypt, to come together in a spirit of peace.
The Carter Center is about the only organization, at least in this country, that maintains full-time relationships with Israel, with Egypt, with Lebanon, with Syria, with Hamas, with Fatah, and with Egypt -- I think I mentioned Egypt earlier. We try to constantly probe for any process of peace. So I hope that, that will come to pass in the future. I don't see any immediate prospects for progress.
BRINKLEY: OK, let's go to this side of the room for a couple. Yes, ma'am, on the front row?
QUESTIONER: Hi, Esther Lee; Burson-Marsteller. As a Korean-American, I'm keenly interested in your activities with North Korea. I'm wondering whether you've had any interaction with the new administration, the new leader. And as a Korean-American and a former Obama administration official, I'm curious as to your assessment of this administration's handling of North Korea.
CARTER: Well, I've been to North Korea three times. I went in 1994 to meet with Kim Il-sung and worked out a 12-position agreement that was adopted by President Clinton and put into effect under Mr. Carlucci, I think. Anyway, that was put into effect. It was thrown in the waste bucket when George W. Bush came into office, as you know, when he was meeting with Kim Dae-jung, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his reaching out to North Korea.
So I thought everything was going quite well when President Clinton left office, to have harmony between North and South Korea and also to have an end to the nuclear program and to have good cooperation between the United States and North Korea. That's all gone down the drain now. I think at this point, the United States policy is basically controlled by President Lee in South Korea, who is the most anti-North Korea president that South Korea has had in the last 30 years.
And in my opinion, the Chinese and North Koreans are now willing to go to the six-power talks to try to rejuvenate what was done there when President George W. Bush was in office -- that is, a complete agreement on all the major issues in the six-power talks, which were never implemented. I haven't met with the new leader. I don't think anybody from the outside has done so.
The North Koreans know that I'm willing to go back there whenever they want me to come. I don't intrude on the North Koreans. Every time I've been, I've been at their urgent invitation to come to North Korea. But what we are able to do, I think, is provide directly to the South Koreans and to the Chinese and to the Americans the direct voice of the North Koreans: This is what we're willing to do. This is what we're not willing to do. And generally, it sounds like they want to be part of the international community again.
They are very concerned that the United States is going to attack them militarily, and we continue to make those kinds of threats. But we have never been willing to sign a new -- any peace treaty between the United States and North Korea. As you know, we still have a cease-fire left over, now, almost 60 years ago. And we still maintain the most severe possible economic embargo on their economic system that we could possibly impose for the last 60 years. So they look on the United States as not being friendly.
So I would like to see us reach out to them, re-initiate the six-power talks without any preconditions, which the Chinese and the North Koreans are willing to do. And maybe after the election this December in South Korea, we'll have a more amenable group in South Korea. I'm not defending what the North Koreans have done, but I understand their deep concerns and their over-reliance on their ability to maybe explode a nuclear weapon in the future. I think what they'd rather have, though, is peace with the rest of the world and economic acceptance.
BRINKLEY: OK. We have time for two more questions. We have to wrap it up. Yes, ma'am, second row, yes.
QUESTIONER: Hello, Mr. President. My name is Sylvana Sinha, and I'm with the World Bank Group. I've spent most of the last few years in Afghanistan, and I was struck by -- while I was there -- by how a lot of the decisions the United States was making over there were driven by domestic politics.
And you commented that the most courageous thing the Senate ever did was to vote in favor of the Panama Canal Treaty, and I'm wondering if you can expand on how you went about influencing the Senate to vote in favor of that. And just another side-note -- would you or the "Elders" be willing to intervene in the Bangladeshi war crimes tribunal, which is proceeding at odds with all standards of international tribunals?
CARTER: I didn't quite understand the last -- the war crimes tribunal --
QUESTIONER: That's taking place in Bangladesh relating to the 1971 civil war between East and West Pakistan.
CARTER: Well, that's a difficult question for me to answer. Let me answer the first part and then kind of put the other in abeyance because I don't understand enough about that second one. When I decided to normalize diplomatic relations and to negotiate the Panama Canal Treaties, we had, had a resolution passed in the U.S. Senate almost overwhelmingly opposing any treaty with Panama that would turn over the canal to them. That was in November of '76, when I was elected president.
So I had that to overcome. So we began a public relations campaign talking about the background and history. David McCullough wrote his wonderful book, "The Path Between Two Seas," that pointed out the cheating of Panama that resulted in our controlling the Panama Canal when nobody from Panama ever saw the treaty before it was signed in secret in the State Department when a Panamanian delegation were on their way down from New York and so forth. And then in addition to that, I began to talk to individual senators.
And one by one, I found out which ones would support the treaties, which ones were adamantly against it, which ones were somewhat equivocal. And those that were equivocal, I began to invite as many as 200 of their key supporters in their own home states to the White House. And I would meet with them personally, and the secretary of state and the secretary of defense would meet with them. Dr. Brzezinski would meet with them.
We would answer all their questions and try to get them to go back home and promote the passage of the Panama Canal Treaties. And this included people that owned the television stations, the newspapers, the presidents of the universities and colleges, the head of the American Legion. Everybody we could think of would come to the White House. And we had a series of those. And then I would meet with individual senators when we got down to the last few stages and do anything they wanted, almost, that was legal to get them to vote for the Panama Canal treaties.
And we slowly but surely inched up beyond 60 and 62 and 63 and 64 and 65 and so forth, and finally got to the 67 mark. And then we voted on it. So another thing that we did was to arrange for trips by the U.S. senators who were doubtful to go down to Panama, and General Torrijos, who was the head of Panama then, would show them the advantages of the treaty to world shipping. So we did everything we possibly could, within reason, including my personal efforts, to bring about that favorable vote.
My hope is that the United States would change its basic policy on human rights, for instance, and support the International Criminal Court and support the peace efforts that are embryonic around the world. And I've already mentioned those. I need not mention them again. But we are overly conflicted now by polarization in the political system that did not exist when I was there. When I ran against Gerald Ford and I ran against Governor Reagan, we always referred to each other as, "my distinguished opponent."
And you know how much money we accepted from special interest groups or from lobbyists or from private contributors when we ran against each other? Zero. We didn't accept any money when we ran against each other for president. And now the massive flooding in of hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, a lot of which is spent on negative advertising, has polarized our country so greatly that even when somebody is finally elected to the Congress, they are kind of halfway mistrusted by their own people because of the previous political commercials against them. And they won't speak to each other when they get to Washington.
And that polarization also exists, basically, between the White House, which is Democratic, and the Republican House and the Republicans in the Senate. And the Senate has become, I'd say, an ineffective -- almost a non-functional body because of the special privileges given under the (sort of ?) aegis of filibustering, where one senator can basically stop a program or a proposal and demand that a 60-vote margin be reached.
So our country has reached a bottom, in my opinion, in its capability as a democratic institution to function. And as you also know, we've made no effort in this country to deal with the enormously, rapidly increasing debt, and that has got to be part of a comprehensive program on correcting our budget programs and also keeping our economy going under some degree of stimulus. I've expanded on your question, but I didn't want to --
BRINKLEY: We're going to have to call it a day, and on behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations, thank you so much for, really, a fantastic presentation. (Applause.) And may god bless you and your family, and have a great trip to Egypt and to China and beyond. And thank you, Mr. President, very much -- appreciate it.
CARTER: Thank you very much. Enjoyed it.
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