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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Carter's Envoy Role Draws Praise and Blame

WASHINGTON -- When the Clinton White House accepted former President Carter's offer to lead a last-ditch mission to Haiti, officials might have expected the kind of help that elder statesmen have provided often in U.S. history -- Averell Harriman, for example, faithfully serving the policies of a succession of chief executives for almost half a century.


In fact, however, Jimmy Carter has become a phenomenon like nothing ever seen in a former president or special envoy. Acting virtually as President Bill Clinton's secretary of state, the determined, deeply religious Carter has repeatedly injected his own idealistic views into U.S. policy -- sometimes bending and changing official policy in the process.


From Haiti to Cuba to North Korea, the peripatetic former president has defused an impressive series of confrontations. Indeed, it was Carter and not administration officials who contacted Cuban leader Fidel Castro and won approval for the crucial talks in New York that led to the halt of the mass exodus of Cubans to the United States earlier this month. In the process, however, Carter has eclipsed Clinton's own foreign policy team, publicly criticized administration policy, created an independent new voice enunciating U.S. foreign policy and, on occasion, replaced old problems with new ones.


Now, even some members of Carter's own Democratic Party who applaud the results of his efforts are expressing concern about the impact of his methods on the sitting president and on the established system for making and carrying out foreign policy. One Democratic senator said Wednesday that most of his colleagues were "extremely upset" with Carter's "dismissive contempt" for Clinton and his "even more shocking statement" that he had told Cedras he was ashamed of U.S. policy toward Haiti.


"Maybe it's time," the senator added, "for Carter to hang up his diplomatic hat and retire for good."


Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat-Delaware, accused Carter of hogging the limelight and giving Clinton little credit for the Haiti agreement. "It reminds me of why he bothered me as president," snapped Biden.


George Vest, a career diplomat who served as assistant secretary of state in the Carter administration, said that it can be particularly difficult when an envoy persists in conducting foreign policy even after the negotiation session is over.


"When the negotiation is over, that's when the negotiator's role ought to end," he said. "The president's response to a envoy who won't give up should be: 'I asked you to do a negotiation and you did it. Thank you. How we carry on is the responsibility of the government.'"


Despite Carter's trashing of Clinton's policies, the president's aides insist that Clinton continues to be comfortable with their relationship. Whether he is or not, Carter shows no sign of slowing down the pace of his attempts to deal with foreign crises. He has announced he intends to continue meeting with leaders considered too unsavory and untrustworthy by Clinton's foreign policy team.


He conferred with the leaders of North Korea and Haiti, Carter said, because they wanted to have someone who would listen to them. "I'm not excusing the crimes that may have been committed by these men. That's not the point," he declared in an interview. "We opened an avenue of communication. These are the kinds of things we will continue to do in the future."


Some State Department officials have opposed using Carter as an emissary, convinced that his repeated public criticisms and penchant for pushing the envelope of his instructions have added to an already widespread perception of disarray in Clinton's foreign policy apparatus.