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President Carter's Nobel Prize: Honoring a man of peace

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Unexpectedly, the Oct. 12 weekend had some good news this year. Jimmy Carter, as principled and sincere a man as American politics has ever produced, has won the 2002 Nobel Peace prize.

The Nobel Peace prize committee declared: "In a situation currently marked by threats of the use of power, Carter has stood by the principles that conflicts must as far as possible be resolved through mediation and international cooperation based on international law ... "

We are very pleased, for Jimmy Carter, and for the values that the decision would appear to endorse and support.

The Nobel committee honored Carter in part for his guidance of the Camp David Accords and in part for his contributions as president to human rights. The Camp David Accords were a crucial first step in Middle Eastern peace negotiations. Had they been properly and consistently followed, not only by the warring parties but also by subsequent U.S. administrations, the Middle East might be a more reasonable place today. With unprecedented diplomatic dexterity, Carter moved Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to sign a peace accord in 1978. They got the Nobel that year, but he did not, as no one had actually nominated him. He has been nominated for the prize eight or nine times since. He never complained that he did not get it and never manifested any ambition toward it. When he got the call last week that he had won, at first he thought it might be a joke. It is indicative of the man's natural modesty and humility.

As president, Carter made the human rights records of other nations central to U.S. diplomacy. He championed human rights at a moment when Latin America's military regimes were beginning to massacre and assassinate their own people. He is blamed by some for allowing the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, but critics have conveniently forgotten the brutal Somoza regime in that tortured country. At least during the phase of rebellion against that despotic and bloody dictatorship, which had been propped up by the U.S. for decades, the Sandinistas had held to pro-democracy tenets.

It is unfortunate that Carter's prize got politicized when one Nobel Committee member took a slap at President Bush's war stance. Gunnar Berge, the Nobel committee chairman, showed very poor form when he linked the two directly. "It [the award] should be interpreted as a criticism of the line that the current administration has taken," Berge stated "It's a kick in the leg to all that follow the same line as the United States."

It is true that President Bush's public statements in the war on terrorism have been direct and tough. But these are different and highly dangerous times fighting an adversary not confined to nation-state or even continental borders, employing radical adherents of Islam spanning race and ethnicity. The intense use of the rhetoric of war scares as many Americans as it stimulates, while it terrifies a large piece of the rest of the world. And it is true that Carter has been critical of the Bush approach. But whatever the merits or demerits of President Bush's war-like stance, and of Carter's public disagreement with the war policy, Carter's own life example is important beyond this historical moment.

Carter's dedication to justice has been unswerving, completely principled and very courageous for many decades. This is why he is such an important global figure. He signals the importance of modesty and the necessity of compassion for the downtrodden, the poor and oppressed. Carter has criticized Bush's stance on Iraq, but deserves the prize for much more than that. He has indeed been an exemplary figure in American life.

Credited for intervening privately with world leaders to achieve the release of approximately 50,000 political prisoners, Jimmy Carter has paid great attention to conflict resolution in many war zones, putting his life and reputation at risk to assist peace-making directly. In his time as president, he traveled to Egypt and Israel to put forth the peace initiative that achieved the impossible and started the hope for peace. It was disrupted by terrorists even then, with the assassination of President Sadat, but the world is still the better for it.

In his post-presidency, Carter has been around the world many times. As a young man, he was a senior officer on a nuclear submarine; later, he ran the family peanut farms for a decade before entering politics. After the public shame of the Nixon years, he was chosen by his countrymen as a proper leader to bring integrity back into public life. Today, he is active and yet much at home, in old Plains, Georgia, even teaching Sunday school week by week. There is a balance to the man that American Indian people can appreciate. Significantly, as he has stated, his concept of human rights has "grown to include not only the right to live in peace, but also to adequate health care, shelter, food and to economic opportunity."

Typically flashing a wide grin, this sincere, devout and moral man can be tough as nails in his unswerving dedication to his principles. It made him an honest leader, but one who was also vulnerable to crass politics.

Unfortunately, Carter's diplomatic human rights program was derailed by the Iran hostage crisis that would cost him his presidency, but it was a beacon of truth in a very geo-political world. He was in Sioux country a couple of years ago, helping to build houses for families. He has also been in Nicaragua and Guatemala and El Salvador, hammering together houses for the poor, monitoring elections (he helped stave off a civil war in Haiti), going directly to the task at hand.

Jimmy Carter, thirty-ninth president of the United States and global citizen, has been a leader who leads by example, a rare thing in American politics. This exemplary quality possesses an Indian value we appreciate.