Clinton's lust for legacy

Jimmy Carter's biographer says that Camp David II could give the president an accomplishment that history will notice before the sexual peccadilloes.


Douglas Brinkley
July 18, 2000 10:20PM (UTC)

New York Times columnist William Safire quipped in 1994 that Jimmy Carter was really globetrotting to satisfy a "lust in his heart for a Nobel Prize," hoping to recast his legacy from that of a failed president to a world statesman. That aside has new meaning when applied to President Bill Clinton's current attempt to broker a Middle East Peace accord at Camp David, one that would almost guarantee him the coveted honor. Tens of thousands in Tel Aviv may be chanting "Jerusalem is not for sale!" but for a U.S. president obsessed with his legacy, an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would mean that the opening paragraph of future textbooks would offer something else besides impeachment and sex scandals.

Only two U.S. presidents have received civilization's most august award: Theodore Roosevelt won in 1906 for mediating a conclusion to the Russo-Japanese War, and Woodrow Wilson won in 1919 for his role in overseeing the Versailles treaty, which ended World War I. A technical snafu in Oslo denied Carter his rightful sharing of the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for brokering the Camp David Accords in 1978, and a movement has been underfoot to compensate him for the oversight. Just months after Carter left the White House Sadat, in a forceful letter to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee dated April 11, 1981, nominated his American friend for the honor, citing his "unwavering commitment" to Middle East peace as evidenced at Camp David, and his tireless efforts to find a solution to the Palestinian problem.

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Carter, the man most responsible for integrating the term "Camp David" into diplomatic parlance, has been nominated for the award every year since for any number of humanitarian good deeds, but it has thus far eluded him. So now, as the retired Carter sits in Plains, Ga., writing a novel on the Revolutionary War, it is Clinton's turn to broker a peace that could change his legacy status forever from amicable rake to statesman.

With the exception of choosing Camp David as the convocation spot, there is nothing unusual about Clinton trying to orchestrate a comprehensive Middle East peace plan. The U.S. government has taken the lead in trying to achieve peace in the region ever since hostility erupted in 1948. But when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met in Oslo in December 1993 to iron out political differences, Clinton stood on the sidelines. The outcome of Oslo, an Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles, stipulated the removal of some Israeli troops from Arab towns in the occupied West Bank and granted Palestinian Authority self-rule by mid-1996. Although the two Middle East leaders signed the declarations at an elaborate White House ceremony on September 3, 1993, the president was more approving spectator than active participant. Compared to the hands-on role Jimmy Carter had played in the Camp David Accords, Clinton was at best a genial facilitator, as evidenced by photos of the famous Arafat-Rabin handshake for peace, which showed a smiling Clinton hovering behind the two leaders.

The Oslo Accords brought Arafat and Rabin Nobel Peace Prizes: The non-essential Clinton, by contrast, was granted a photo-op to display on his study wall. From that moment on, Clinton -- who three months into his presidency had explicitly complained that "foreign policy is not what I came here to do" -- began focusing on a peace plan for both the Israeli-Arab dispute and the civil war in Ireland. And in both areas he achieved some measure of success. He helped Jordan and Israel overcome their differences, clearing the way for signing of a formal peace treaty in October 1994. He also opened a new dimension of the peace process by organizing economic summits with Middle East leaders at Casablanca, Morocco; Amman, Jordan; and Cairo, Egypt - these were encouraging and important new steps toward normalizing relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

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A cynic who wants to question Clinton's commitment toward achieving an historic breakthrough in the region should consider this: During his first term he dispatched Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Damascus 27 times, hoping to forge a peace treaty between Syria and Israel, but instead catching criticism in the press for his administration's empty-handed efforts.

Clinton has achieved, however, the respect of both Yasser Arafat and Israeli moderates. Since Clinton became president the Palestinian leader has visited the White House a record-breaking dozen times. More significantly, in December 1998, Clinton became the first U.S. president to visit Arafat in his Gaza home.

The Palestinian people have learned to both like and trust Clinton. On the other hand, Clinton scored points with Israeli moderates when he led a delegation to Tel Aviv following Rabin's assassination. "Those who practice terror must not succeed," Clinton announced on a visit to Israel a few months after Rabin's death. "We must seek them out, and we will not let them kill the peace."

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And, of course, Clinton remained vigilant in dealing with the Middle East's wild card, Saddam Hussein. In October 1994, the administration dispatched a full reserve of U.S. planes, ships and ground troops in response to renewed Iraqi military activities around the Kuwaiti border. Clinton deployed nearly 30,000 U.S. troops to the Gulf during the crisis in the name of preserving peace in the region. Clinton made it clear in his famous "dual commitment" speech to the World Jewish Congress in April 1995 that he was not going to let either Tehran or Baghdad destabilize the Middle East:

"[Iran and Iraq] harbor terrorists within their borders. They establish and support terrorist base camps in other lands. They hunger for nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction," he said. "Every day they put innocent civilians in danger and stir up discord among nations."

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It is Clinton's full understanding of Israel's security needs, which he also demonstrated at the Wye, Md., summit in October 1998, that brought Barak to Camp David II. With Clinton leaving office in six months, Arafat ill with Parkinson's disease and Barak the leader of a fragile coalition government, this summit represents a unique window for a peace plan that would deal with the thorny issue of Jerusalem.

But it won't be easy. "God, it's hard," Clinton said Sunday in his first public assessment of the talks. "It's like nothing I've ever dealt with. All the negotiations with the Irish, all the stuff I've done with the Balkans at Dayton ... I'm more optimistic than I was when they first got here. We might make it -- I don't know."

Choosing Camp David as the meeting grounds is more akin to rubbing a ceramic Buddha's belly and praying for luck than a grandstand display of presidential hubris. After all, Carter was successful at Camp David. If Clinton fails, historians will note that when it came to tough negotiations the Arkansas politician just didn't have the right stuff. At one juncture in 1978, for example, the determined Carter physically blocked a doorway at Camp David and refused to let Begin leave the compound. When that moment of reckoning strikes Camp David II, one can only hope Clinton isn't out delivering an NAACP stump speech or concentrating on a backslapping rapport.

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If he strikes the jackpot at Camp David II, his foreign policy stock will soar. Clinton trumped Carter by being the first Democratic president to gain reelection since FDR. But a Nobel Peace Prize might even give him status as a global statesman surpassing Carter's.


Douglas Brinkley

Douglas Brinkley is the director of the Eisenhower Center and a professor of history at the University of New Orleans; he is also the author of "The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White House."

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