With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States, as the only remaining superpower, has a rare chance to make the world better, former President Carter says.
By no longer having to compete with the Soviet Union for influence in the Third World, Carter said last night at Goucher College, the United States is free to wield its power to bring peace, economic development and democracy.
"These things are there for the asking," he told an audience of about 2,000. "I don't know if we will."
Carter expressed doubts and chastized his Republican successors. He rendered the four years of his own administration as a warm and confident time.
Many of the people packing the Goucher sports and recreation center basked in the glow of his nostalgia. They applauded. They prefaced many of their questions to him with tributes to his work both in office and since his loss in 1980 to former President Reagan.
Carter speculated that the Democrats, who appear weak now, will come up with campaign issues to reverse the Republican lock on the White House.
President Bush has achieved high popularity ratings "for successful wars," he said.
"That's an unfortunate aspect of the American people. I think that is not a permanent popularity."
He denounced Bush's Persian Gulf War as a tragic and unnecessary action that has left the region destabilized and with no democratic change in sight.
His advice to Democrats running for president is to offer conservative ideas for fiscal responsibility, national defense and empowering state and local government. But Democrats should hew to their liberal heritage, he said, in proposing initiatives for health care, education and civil rights.
Since leaving office, Carter has devoted most of his time to the Carter Center, a public policy organization at Emory University in Atlanta.
The Carter Center brings together experts trying to deal with such things as health and economics, and attempts to meld their competing views into a plan of action.
Carter travels the globe, seeking to mediate conflicts. Where factions in civil strife in other countries are unable to negotiate, Carter said, he proposes elections instead. This strategy appeals to what Carter called the "self-delusion" of most politicians that they are popular enough to win any election.
The Carter Center offers to monitor such elections, as it has done in Panama and Nicaragua and is preparing to do so in other countries.
In a talk with reporters before his speech, Carter recalled the triumph of his presidency, the Camp David accords that brought peace between Israel and Egypt.
That agreement is still "the only framework or set of principles for peace in the Middle East," he said. "Until a year ago, no one paid attention to the Middle East much."
For all his barbed references to his Republican successors, Carter did praise the Bush administration for its efforts so far to arrange a comprehensive Middle East peace conference.
"It's been very good, at least they tried," he said. He supported Bush in withholding U.S. loan guarantees for Israeli settlements in occupied territories.
"The building of the settlements is the most difficult obstacle to overcome," Carter said, because it undermines future negotiation that might involve the exchange of occupied land for guarantees of peace.
The former president's hope for peace in the Middle East was based on his belief that in all the countries that are part of the conflict there, "the people want peace," he said. "In the future sometime, I think politicians will succumb to what the people want."