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Should Jimmy Carter Have Talked with Hamas?

President Jimmy Carter is no stranger to controversy. Since the mid-1980s, he has been an outspoken critic of those aspects of U.S. foreign or domestic policy of which he does not approve. In recent years, this has included the decision of President George W. Bush to invade Iraq, Dick Cheney’s record as vice-president, and the impact of Christian fundamentalism upon the United States. In the last week, he has aroused renewed debate over his decision to travel to Syria and meet with Khaled Mashaal, the exiled leader of Hamas. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claims that Carter was explicitly told not to meet with Mashaal on the grounds that such a meeting would confuse U.S. policy toward what Washington considers a terrorist organization.. Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman went so far as to label Carter “a bigot.”

Carter has rejected the criticism. According to him, isolating Hamas, which he notes was elected by a majority of Palestinians in 2006, violates the democratic principles for which the United States stands. Moreover, refusing to talk with Hamas will only make it harder to moderate its attitude toward Israel, thereby opening the door to further violence. Indeed, he states, his negotiations succeeded in convincing Hamas to accept any agreement worked out between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, to adopt a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, and to permit international control of the Gaza-Egypt border.

Whether Rice indeed told Carter not to go to Syria must remain speculative; Carter has stated that he received no such demand. One must wonder, though, whether Carter would have agreed not to go even had he received such instructions. As has been noted by a number of scholars, including myself, Carter has long regarded himself as a trustee of the American people, if not of the world, who does what he believes is right no matter what the fallout. He himself confirmed this in an interview on April 29 with CNN American Morning anchor John Roberts. During a discussion of his new book on his mother, Lillian, he was asked what one lesson he learned from her. His response: do what you believe is right, even if you are criticized for it. Moreover, he feels that eventually others will come to see the correctness of his cause.

In one respect, Carter is following a long-standing American precedent which argues that a way to moderate the behavior of radical or revolutionary governments is through negotiation rather than isolation. U.S. policy toward communist China is a case in point. Following the communists’ victory in 1949, the United States cut relations with, and led efforts to impose an international embargo on, the government in Beijing. While he maintained the embargo so as not to anger right-wing members of the Republican Party, President Dwight D. Eisenhower supported Japan’s decision to resume trade with China. Not only would Tokyo have access to the Chinese market, thereby protecting U.S. textile manufacturers from cheap Japanese textile imports, but, believed the president, having contacts with Japan might temper the Chinese government’s attitude toward the West. And, of course, throughout the Cold War, the United States maintained diplomatic contact with the Soviet Union despite their diametrically-opposed ideologies.

In another respect, however, Carter has broken new ground. He has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to challenge presidential policy. He excoriated President Ronald Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa’s pro-apartheid government and opposed the use of force in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. In 1994, President Bill Clinton, whose relationship with Carter had never been close, reluctantly sent the former president to North Korea to convince the government in Pyongyang not to develop nuclear weapons. Carter did indeed reach such an agreement. But to the anger of the Clinton administration, he made the settlement public; the White House believed that in so doing, Carter had undermined the possibility of using sanctions or other measures to stop the North’s nuclear ambitions. Though he is a former president, the very fact that Carter was at one point the most powerful person in the United States not only is likely to receive a great deal of media attention, but gives the people or groups with whom he speaks a level of legitimacy that would not be accorded by a retired charge d’affaires, ambassador, or even a secretary.

One must wonder if anything will come of Carter’s trip. Israel has shown no willingness to meet with Hamas. Hamas rejects the idea of recognizing Israel. In short, any permanent agreement seems a long way off.