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September 30, 2002

Carter warns against solo attack on Iraq

By Eric Rangus

Former President Jimmy Carter displayed his humor early, his emotions late and his candor throughout his 21st Town Hall meeting with the Emory community, Sept. 26.
“When the former president speaks,” Student Government Association President Christopher Richardson told the nearly 1,000 members of the primarily freshman audience gathered in the P.E. Center, “the nation listens.”

Well, if President George W. Bush was listening, he would’ve heard a hefty dose of criticism of his policies.

On Iraq: “If the U.S. should decide to attack unilaterally,” Carter said, “it would be a devastating mistake.”

On the Israeli/Palestinian conflict: “The ultimate solution is for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, and Arab countries must recognize Israel’s right to exist.” Carter continued by saying the Bush administration has “abandoned” the commitment of previous administrations to balance their Israeli/
Palestinian policies and completely supported the Israelis.

And on the economy: “The gross giveaway of the tax cut should be repealed and certainly should not be expanded.”

Carter’s answer to the first question of the evening wasn’t a criticism of a Bush policy, but rather of the 2000 election that placed him in the White House.

“[The Carter Center was] not responsible for the Florida election,” Carter said jokingly, after he explained the center’s important work in overseeing elections in troublespots throughout the world.

The question concerned Carter’s thoughts about a possible change to the Electoral College system. Carter said he doubted the system would ever be totally eliminated but added that some states allocate electors not by party, but by percentage of votes the candidate received. If Florida used that system, Carter said, Bush would’ve received 13 electoral votes, and Gore 12, which would’ve put Gore in the White House.

“Or, if they would’ve counted the votes accurately, Gore would’ve gotten 13, and Bush 12,” the Democratic former president quipped, followed by applause.

Following the election question, Carter’s thoughts on world conflict took center stage. While he commented on Kashmir and Israel, Carter’s most sobering thoughts—warnings, actually—concerned Iraq.

He spoke of the dangers of acting unilaterally and listed several: It would be a violation of the United Nations (UN) charter signed by the United States; it would alienate potential allies and irritate friends; it would be a “radical departure” from the policies of every president since World War II; and it would encourage Arab nations, many of whom support the war on terror, to back Saddam Hussein.

Carter showed no love for Hussein, calling him an “obnoxious dictator” whose condemnation is deserved, but added that the best way to deal with him is through a UN resolution allowing weapons inspectors to search for chemical, biological and nuclear arms.

The former president, who has never backed down from a question posed to him at Emory, talked about more than the struggles between nations. For instance, he said the country where he would choose to study abroad would be Spain. Carter also talked in depth about his recent visit to Cuba, complimenting the country’s health care and education systems, but lamenting its prohibition on freedom of speech and lack of democracy.

Carter’s Castro story was his final one of the hour-long town hall, but the most emotional moment came on the penultimate question, which asked him about his similarities to his father.

They were both stern disciplinarians, Carter said. Carter’s children woke him up to this fact, but the former president’s father died relatively young and remained distant from his offspring.

“He was not as attentive to my sensitivities as he should’ve been,” said Carter, who was a naval officer when his father died. “He would never have thought about saying, ‘You did a good job.’” Carter hungered for words of congratulations from his father.

The story reminded Carter of an answer he gave the previous year to a question asking what he would say to his father if he could: “I would have told him that I wanted to grow up and be just like him.”