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Jimmy Carter: “William Hague is a hero of mine”

Our man in Washington John Bew has coffee with the former US president – and they talk Thatcher, Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the persecution of women.

James the evangelist: Jimmy Carter at home in Plains, Georgia

Jimmy Carter – Nobel peace laureate 2002, treaty-maker, international development expert, destroyer of diseases and bestselling author – has set his mind on transforming women’s rights. I meet the former president in the ninth-floor presidential suite at the Mandarin Oriental in Washington, DC. Appositely, the location is slightly away from the usual bustle of political hot spots – Capitol Hill, K Street or the historic downtown hotels such as the Mayflower or Hay-Adams. As he greets me, his slender, 89-year-old frame springing up from the sofa where he was resting, you cannot help but marvel at his energy and drive.

Carter’s latest book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power (Simon & Schuster, £18.99), is brimming with missionary zeal and a sense of historical purpose of a kind that we Brits often regard with some cynicism. It begins by recalling the experience of segregation in the Deep South, an injustice that seems to have shaped his world-view more than anything else. It evokes the spirit of Martin Luther King and even the precedent of the 19th-century abolition of the slave trade. In Carter’s mind, each battle he has fought is more important than the last.

Aside from his time at the White House from 1977 to 1981, Carter has been a Baptist Sunday school teacher for more than 60 years, following in the footsteps of his father. Jesus, he writes in A Call to Action, never denigrated women in the way that Christian societies have done since. True Islam, too, has been perverted by arcane cultural practices in the Middle East and Africa, such as female genital mutilation, which have no grounding in the Quran. Carter tells me about the letter he recently wrote to Pope Francis concerning the role of women in the Catholic Church, and recounts the story of his own split from the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 2000s over its refusal to ordain female ministers.

As we talk, I notice much of his ire is turned inwards on the United States, where, he argues, damaging levels of sexism are prevalent throughout society – in politics, professional life, the military and even on university campuses. Not just discrimination, but widespread sexual aggression and abuse, go unnoticed or are accepted tacitly.

Would the election of a female president make a difference?

“I don’t know,” he says, without mentioning the Democratic front-runner, Hill­ary Clinton, to whom he has offered only lukewarm support in the past. In the west, successful female politicians are reluctant to grapple with women’s issues, he explains, for fear that they might upset a system geared towards male dominance.

By contrast, in post-revolutionary states such as Maoist China or Sandinista Nicaragua, women were given more opportunity to excel in political life. The United States ranks 60th in the world, he notes, for female participation in politics.

What did he think of Margaret Thatcher? “I admired her as a respectful, powerful and forceful woman, although she was much more conservative on social issues [than I was],” he says. After a pause, he jokingly adds: “She also knew more about my country than I did.”

Carter’s greatest impact has been in the developing world. Among the many achievements of his Carter Centre, founded in 1982, one stands out above all. This has been the almost complete eradication of guinea-worm disease, which once affected four million people in Africa. For this reason, he is widely regarded as one of the most successful former presidents. This accolade sounds flattering but isn’t always intended to be. Carter has grumbled that the present incumbent of the White House does not bother to consult him.

In person, Carter is charming, warm and impossible not to like. In Britain we would call him a “national treasure” – a sort of Tony Benn figure, with whom you don’t have to agree in order to respect his integrity. But as one of only three one-term presidents since 1945, Carter exudes the sense of having unfinished business to attend to. He has written 28 books, most of them in a similar evangelical, campaigning vein.

What drew him to the issue of women’s rights, and why now?

He and his wife, Rosalynn (they have been married for nearly 70 years), have visited 145 countries as part of the work of the Carter Centre, which has active projects in half of them. Most of the centre’s programmes, from disease prevention to birth control, are channelled through the women in the communities where it works – teachers, nurses, mothers and wives. It is through working with these women that Carter began to understand the scale of the problems: the selective abortion of female foetuses; mass infanticide of newborn girls (“gendercide” is the expression that Carter uses); female genital mutilation; sexual violence and trafficking. He believes that the slave trade of women is bigger now than it was in the 19th century.

Is Carter aware of the recent work by William Hague and the British Foreign Office, together with Angelina Jolie, in campaigning against sexual violence in conflict zones? “Absolutely,” he says, and both he and his aide nod vigorously when I mention the forthcoming summit on the subject in London in June. Hague, Carter says in his Georgian drawl, “is an active hero of mine; he and Miss Jolie are doing a successful and admirable job”.

Is this the type of “soft-power” diplomacy and “moral leadership” that can help Britain carve out a new international niche for itself? The idea appeals to Carter, not least because it is the type of thing that the Carter Centre does.

Though he is unwilling to be drawn into a discussion of Tony Blair and his foreign policy, Carter has condemned the former Labour prime minister for having been too close to George W Bush, whom he holds responsible for excessive “militarism” in US foreign policy. “It’s a shameful and pitiful state of affairs,” he said in 2006, “and I hold your British prime minister to be substantially responsible for being so compliant and subservient.”

Carter’s eyes brighten when we turn to contemporary affairs and his tongue grows sharper. He expresses disappointment that the lofty language of Barack Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech has not been matched by action. Carter has denounced the expansion of drone warfare, the activities of the National Security Agency and the failure to close Guantanamo Bay. He smiles gently but doesn’t bite on the bait when I suggest that it might have been premature to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama in 2009.

While high unemployment and inflation played a part, it was Carter’s perceived inadequacies in foreign affairs that led to his defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980 after one term in office. A quick succession of events in 1978-79, including the Iranian Islamic Revolution and hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, created the impression that his was a presidency at the mercy of events.

Many in Washington have compared Russia’s annexation of Crimea to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 but Carter is not convinced. Crimea is a “special case”, he says, because of its history and influence on the Russian psyche. Nonetheless, he firmly believes that Russian expansionism should stop there, and that the United States and its allies should present a united front to prevent further infringements of Ukrainian sovereignty by Moscow.

At this point, Carter begins to recite the various aspects of his own response to the Soviets in order to illustrate his toughness. These included withdrawing American athletes from the 1980 Moscow Olympics, a trade embargo and the arming of the Afghan mujahedin. He explicitly reminds me of the way in which the CIA did this with Russian-made weapons from other states, in order to disguise the US role. You can almost hear the voice of Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who wanted “to make the Soviets bleed for as much and as long as is possible”. Given the subsequent history of Afghanistan, and the origins of al-Qaeda, I wonder, does he have any regrets? “No, no regrets at all.”

Suddenly, discussing his own record in office, this archetypal dove sounds defiantly hawkish. One wonders what type of Jimmy Carter the world would have known today had he won a second term. The differences between the “realpolitik” of the Nixon-Kissinger years and the short-lived policy of the Carter-Brzezinski era can be overstated.

When Carter held the reins himself, his humanitarianism often took a back seat. In December 1977, at a dinner during a state visit to Tehran, he declared: “Iran, because of the great leadership of the shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” Incredibly, he congratulated Mohammad Reza Shah for “the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you”.

As the regime began to crumble over the course of the following year, Brzezinski reassured the shah that the United States would back him “to the hilt”, though this was something on which, ultimately, Carter was not prepared to follow through.

The evening before our meeting, Iran nominated Hamid Aboutalebi, who was allegedly among the hostage-takers in the 1979 storming of the US embassy in Tehran, as its new ambassador to the United Nations. The move was widely interpreted as a snub to the Americans. Given the damage that the hostage crisis did to the Carter presidency, I ask if he has any thoughts about the appointment. He has just heard the news but swiftly reverts to the philosophical, conciliatory Carter we know best. “No objections at all,” he says. “Iran is a sovereign state and many of the hostage-takers were college kids at the time.”

On Syria, he is a little more forthcoming. Intriguingly, he describes how he has met Bashar al-Assad “six or seven times”, including when Assad was a university student in London.

What was his impression of him?

He pauses. Assad is a “proud person” and one of the “most obdurate individuals I have ever met”. This is one of the reasons why Carter thinks it was a mistake for the US to demand that the Syrian leader resign as the civil war in his country began. To Carter, to set this condition was unrealistic, because it underestimated the strength and depth of Assad’s support and misunderstood the whole logic of the regime. But was Carter’s alternative faith in the Kofi Annan peace plan – allowing Assad to stay on but with elections and UN human rights monitors – any more realistic?

In retrospect, Carter, for all his perceived failures, did score some successes abroad, such as the Camp David Accords of 1978, which secured peace between Egypt and Israel, and in bringing the question of human rights to the forefront of the cold war. However, his record at home has been criticised by some social democrats in the US who believed he abandoned the “affirmative government” of the Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy tradition in favour of a type of small-government liberalism.

The recently published letters of Arthur Schlesinger, the distinguished historian who worked as a speechwriter for JFK, contain a message to Carter’s special assistant Ray Jenkins in 1982, in which Schlesinger complains: “Human rights and Camp David apart, the Carter years were wasted years.”

Carter cannot be accused of wasting any time since then.

John Bew is a historian and New Statesman contributing writer

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, has just been published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle