Jimmy Carter, whose reputation as a better ex-president than president constitutes damnation with the faintest possible praise, is a Christian whose services to his faith include making vivid the scarlet sin of pride. He is serenely and incorrigibly convinced that even seemingly intractable international conflicts are actually mere misunderstandings that can be cured by exposing the world's most obdurate rulers and regimes to the sweet reasonableness and sheer goodness of himself. So in 1994, having spent less than 90 hours in North Korea, he announced that in those hours he had solved the pesky little problem of North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Doubtless this was one of the achievements for which Carter was recently honored with the Nobel Peace Prize.
There can be a serendipitous time to receive terrible news, and last week, while Carter was still luxuriating in his warm bath of post-Nobel praise, came a cold shower--news that North Korea's drive to become a nuclear power, a drive that probably began shortly after the Korean War armistice in 1953, had not after all been ended by Carter's 1994 pastoral visit. This in spite of the fact that Carter, who must be a really quick study, said that during his brief visit he had reached his happy conclusions about North Koreans by "observing their psyche and their societal structure and the reverence with which they look upon their leader."
In 1994 President Clinton was looking for new problems to solve, having solved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He had just orchestrated the 1993 Oslo agreement that brought the world's senior terrorist, Yasir Arafat (Nobel Peace Prize, 1994), back from Tunisian exile to the Middle East, there to nurture the culture of suicide bombing and the carnage that has been happening ever since he pocketed his prize.
So on Nov. 7, 1993, Clinton declared: "North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb. We have to be very firm about it." Soon firmness, in the form of Carter, was off to deal with North Korea's dictator, 82-year-old Kim Il Sung. Carter found him to be not only revered (see above) but deservedly so. Carter described Kim as "vigorous, intelligent, surprisingly well-informed." About Kim's tyranny, his torture and starvation of his people and his promiscuous violations of agreements, Carter was too morally modest to be censorious: "This is something that's not for me to judge."
But as to reports that North Korea was in dire straits, Carter was eager to set the record straight. He said that North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, was as bright and gay as Times Square at night and its shops reminded Carter of the "Wal-Mart in Americus, Georgia."
Carter's pilgrimage to Pyongyang paved the way for the Agreed Framework. Under it the United States gave North Korea tangible and irrecoverable things (two nuclear reactors, lots of oil) in exchange for something intangible--a promise to stop its nuclear-weapons programs and to start obeying the agreements it had previously agreed to obey.
The New York Times (Oct. 19, 1994) crowed, "Diplomacy with North Korea has scored a resounding triumph" because Clinton and his negotiators "have defied impatient hawks and other skeptics who accused the Clinton administration of gullibility." The hawks, said the Times derisively, argued "that the North was simply stalling while it built more bombs."
Last week the Times did not mention its 1994 misjudgment, both spectacular and routine, as it said this about North Korea's duplicity: "Keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of dictators who want them requires more than signed agreements." Today the Times favors being stern with Saddam Hussein, to the point of forcing him to sign more agreements.
In the debate about how to deal with Iraq, Carterism is enjoying an Indian summer. Carterites say Iraq should be given another chance to promise to keep the promises it has made about fulfilling the agreements it has broken. We are into re-runs of "That '70s Show."
Carter's secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, said that Leonid Brezhnev shares America's "dreams and aspirations," but only six months passed between Carter's 1979 kiss of Brezhnev in Vienna and Brezhnev's invasion of Afghanistan. Carter, then 55 years old, said the invasion taught him a whole lot that he had never known about communism. North Korea took eight years to join the lengthening list of Carter's disappointments.
Both the Carter and Clinton parentheses in American history were followed by reversions to realism. But recurrent episodes of Carterism--sentimentality about "dialogue" as the dissolver of differences, leavened by vanity about the power of one's personality--waste time, which we are running short of. The fact that North Korean nuclear weapons may be a clear and already present danger underscores the reason for acting against Iraq while its nuclear program is still, in the president's carefully chosen phrase, a grave and gathering danger.