In the 30 years since he left the White House, former President Jimmy Carter has strived to advance humanitarian principles around the world. The Carter Center, a nonprofit organization he founded in 1982, has sent observers to monitor elections in developing democracies, participated in international conflict negotiations, and promoted human rights and economic and social development. In 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. His life is chronicled in a new biography for school-age children titled Gift of Peace by Elizabeth Raum. The book focuses on themes of "family, faith, and harmony," and principles of compassion and justice, which Carter says guided not only his life but also his presidency. The 39th president recently spoke with U.S. News about some of the topics covered in his biography as they relate to recent events. Excerpts:
You have done a lot of work promoting democracy in the Middle East. Can you comment on the revolutions sweeping that region?
I think Arab Spring was generally a good development. We'll soon be monitoring the election in Tunisia. And I'll be talking to the leaders of Egypt about the possible role of the Carter Center to play in their elections. So far they haven't made a decision whether outsiders can participate or not. But I think there's no doubt that the uprising of the general populations against military dictatorships has been a very worthy cause. And it's given a great deal of responsibility now to people. On the other hand, they still have a long way to go over there. The thing that affects me personally and the Carter Center most is it changed the relationship between Egypt and Israel. For a long time [ousted President Hosni] Mubarak was not inclined to enforce the Camp David Accords that I happened to negotiate between Egypt and Israel. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, I think now the people of Egypt are putting pressure on the military leaders to honor and protect the lives of the Palestinians, which may bring about a change for the better in that relationship in the future. So in general, I think the Arab Spring movements have been long overdue and we don't yet know the final results in the establishment of new governments.
Have we done enough to support these popular movements?
I think so. I don't think it would have been proper for the United States to become involved in Tunisia, where we had practically no role. Or Egypt, where we were asked to stay out and we did. I think, in retrospect, going out and helping in a secondary way in Libya, it seems to be turning out for the better. I think we should be very reluctant to become involved with ground forces in any of the countries over there in the future.
Is military intervention ever justified?
Well, I've been basically against military intervention as a general principle when I was president. I never was called upon to launch missiles or throw bombs and so forth. But I have to say that there are some times when it's necessary. For instance, after 9/11, I think us going into Afghanistan was inevitable.
You were president during a hard economic time. How would you suggest President Obama jump-start the slumping economy?
I would like to see President Obama forge a comprehensive proposal that would bring our expenditures down but also increase revenue and therefore get our deficit under control. I think he should do this on his own initiative, evolve the best comprehensive plan that he possibly can with advice from a lot of people, and take it directly to the public and say, "This is what I have worked out. Please support me." And I believe that the public, most Democrats and Republicans, would join in helping overcome the partisan divide that seems to be hamstringing any sort of progress in Washington within the Congress.
Is a strong economic plan the key to President Obama securing a second term?
Well, that's one thing I pretty much ignored to my political sorrow when I was in office—election-year politics and things like that. I think that the best political approach for him even now would be to let the people know that he was bold and knowledgeable and politically courageous in order to put forward things that would result in some decrease in services, including Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, but also increase revenue. The combination of those would then meet the goal of bringing our finances back into proper condition. And I think if he did that and took it directly to the people without equivocation, that it would be well received.
Are there major differences between your approach to running the country and that of the current administration?
What I did when I was president, and I'm not preaching to President Obama, but whenever we got a major issue, we developed legislation that I proposed inside the White House in its entirety. And we brought in congressional leaders—chairmen of committees and their staff members—into the White House to help us draft those bills in detail, and then we submitted it to Congress for amendments. That was just my way of governing, which seems to be different from the present administration. President Obama has a policy, which may very well be the right one for now, of letting the Congress evolve multiple bills and then ultimately negotiating to get a final decision, or even no decisions. I think a much stronger approach by the White House would be my own personal belief, as a political philosophy.
The biography highlights your religious faith. What is your view on how religion factors into political campaigns today?
I always kept strict separation of my religious faith from anything that I did in my official capacity. I think [the invocation of religion in political campaigns] in some cases is quite excessive. You know, they're just espousing their own religious faith as a preferable religion, both involving theoretical and theological things and also political things. This merger of politics and religion started taking place while I was president, but independently of me. The Republican Party has been aligned with it ever since. Now many of the candidates make no apology for the fact that they are injecting religion directly into politics. It's bad for government and bad for the country, and I think the advantages that might occur to a candidate that does it might be transient in nature.
Looking back at your time in office, is there anything you would have done differently?
There are some things I could do tactically, like send one more helicopter to rescue the hostages [during the Iran hostage crisis]. If I'd gotten the hostages out in April 1980, I probably would have been re-elected. I sent more helicopters than we needed, but if I had just sent one more, we would have been more successful. Things like that. But as far as general principles are concerned? We espoused peace, we never deviated from that. We espoused human rights, we espoused justice, and we always told the truth. So those general moral principles I think are ones that I would not have equivocated in a do-over.