Carter may be at his best in post-White House work



WASHINGTON -- Whether or not "the crisis is over" regarding North Korea's nuclear program, as former President Jimmy Carter says, he believes after his latest mission of personal diplomacy that his stature as the best-intentioned, most public-minded former chief executive should be enhanced as a result of his visit.

The Clinton administration's early expressions of chagrin about Carter's interpretation of the outcome of his talks, later revised to cautious optimism, have only underscored the public perception of drift, fair or not, in the administration's own conduct of foreign policy generally.

At the least, Carter has given Clinton and his foreign policy team some maneuvering room and the opportunity to change a course that the former president clearly believes has been headed toward an unwise confrontation and possible war. At best, he once again has demonstrated his talent for direct diplomacy of the sort that produced the capstone of his own presidency, the Camp David talks with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat that produced the spectacular peace accords between the two countries in 1978.

There is, to be sure, only so much a private citizen, even a former president, can do in trying to work out a peaceful solution to such a potentially explosive matter as a renegade state like North Korea threatening to build nuclear weapons, if it has not indeed already done so. And Carter has been known, as president and as private citizen, to accentuate the positive, whether justified or not.

When he was in the White House himself, Carter often was accused by Republicans in Congress of misreading the intentions of the Soviet Union, and after the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops in late 1979, he acknowledged in effect that he had been too trusting of Moscow. He observed then that, "My opinion of the Russians has changed more drastically in the last week than even the previous 2 1/2 years."

He remained optimistic in 1980 as the American hostages held in Tehran continued in captivity, to the point of indicating in the midst of his battle with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination that they were about to be released -- a contention criticized as politically motivated after his optimism proved to be ill-founded.

In another, less significant dispute when he was president, between the tobacco industry and anti- smoking forces, Carter demonstrated his penchant for putting things in the best possible light. As a result of the strong anti-smoking efforts of Joseph A. Califano Jr., his Cabinet member dealing with national health issues, Carter boasted in tobacco-producing North Carolina that smoking would be "even safer than it is today."

For all that, however, Carter demonstrated in the Camp David accords and thereafter that he is a restless quester after world peace and that he has a special talent as a trouble-shooter. His creation of the Carter Center for conflict resolution has been a unique contribution to the advancement of peace through negotiation, and his personal missions to Central America and elsewhere to monitor elections have often yielded success.

When you contrast these activities with those of the other living ex-presidents -- Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, all of whom have done little or nothing beyond padding their pockets on corporate boards or making speeches or foreign visits for pay -- Carter's efforts look particularly selfless.

Nevertheless, he is taking considerable heat right now on allegations of meddling in the conduct of foreign policy and of being duped by a demonstrably untrustworthy dictator. North Korea may indeed be doing nothing more than buying time until the spent nuclear fuel in its possession is ready for processing into use in nuclear weapons.

But by putting public heat on the Clinton administration to undertake direct talks with the North Korean regime, and possibly facilitating early talks between the North and South Korean leaders, Carter may be moving all parties back a step or two from the brink of military confrontation.

If so, he will have demonstrated once again why he may, in the end, be better remembered for his time after leaving the White House than for his time in it.

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