Jimmy Carter on Darfur
[this post was originally written on October 25th]
I managed to get my hands on one of the elusive Jimmy Carter Engagement tickets and at 1:13 yesterday I saw the former president in person for the first time.
As he walks out on stage, I realize just how courteous, lithe and inspirational the man really is. He waves at us all, accepts the uproarious applause with grace, and of course starts with a joke –he’s already three times better than our current president. As he begins to dive into his speech, the recital hall falls wonderfully silent, save the sounds of camera flashes and shutters. Secret Service, Metro Police and Campus Security stand with their backs to the stage, watching the audience for potential security threats. Their presence isn’t enough to overwhelm the optimism of Carter’s speech, however.
He finishes his story about a New Yorker cartoon and the importance of being an activist ex-president and launches into a discussion on the involvement of the Carter Center in elections, leaders, food and mental health concerns in developing nations around the world. From there Carter speaks about The Elders: Kofi Anon, Nelson Mandella, Desmond Tutu and himself, among others –“political has-beens” he jokingly says. Burma, Zimbabwe and Darfur are the focal points of activism among The Elders. Carter then begins to speak exclusively on the topic of Darfur and the efforts he’s led through both the Carter Center and The Elders to raise awareness of the “crimes against humanity” occurring in Darfur and to “find permanent peace” between northern and southern Sudan. He rejects the term “genocide” in discussing the Darfur question because –he argues- “while the government is culpable” for the atrocities committed upon hundreds of thousands of Darfuris, “the government has not orchestrated [those attacks]”.
Within this very serious discussion, however, the climax of Carter’s speech comes when he says that the momentum of American foreign policy and international opinion of the United States can –and should- change within the half hour needed for a new Democratic president to deliver his or her inaugural address. Carter suggests that five things must be said. First, the new president must declare that the United States will no longer go to war unless there is a direct threat to our national security. Second: that we will no longer torture potentially innocent suspects and hold them accountable to American law without providing them with American rights – full, boisterous applause follows this pronouncement. Next, Carter calls for peace in the Middle East and an increased concern for the environment in “combating global warming”. Carter’s fifth and most important suggestion for the new president’s inaugural speech is a promise to “raise high the banner of human rights” –more applause follows.
On the whole, Carter’s speech reminds me of the importance of idealism in foreign policy: without hope for a better method of dealing with terrorists, ignorance, struggling economies and decreasing resources, what improvements in international relations do we have to look forward to in the future? What we need now is a president who can break us out of this self-destructive approach to foreign policy –power relations are immutable- and show us that there’s a better way to do business. We need a president who can unite our country socially (s/he must defend the humanity and equality between men and women of all sexual orientations) economically (s/he must refuse to sign resolution after resolution to send more and more U.S. money into the soil of Iraq and Afghanistan and instead funnel those dollars back into domestic programs) and politically (s/he must engender bi-partisan support for furthering social and economic equality at home and abroad). Perhaps with a president like that we may begin to solve some of the issues to which President Carter has devoted so much of his life.