June 13, 2009

Jimmy Carter on Jeff Feltman

From my friend Josh Hersh, in the New Yorker:

Perhaps the only thing Carter hadn’t found time for, of late, was an epic e-mail from Jeffrey Feltman, the State Department’s envoy to Syria—“It’s this long,” Carter said, spreading his hands wide as if he were taking measure of a prize fish. Carter, who has been outspoken in his support for more American engagement with the Syrian regime, and groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which are on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, has a particular disdain for Feltman, who as Ambassador to Lebanon during the Bush Administration, consistently antagonized Syria. “For some ungodly reason, when Hillary decided to send some representative to Syria they picked out Feltman,” he said.

On the one hand, this story is kind of amusing, what with the former president getting a case of the red ass on account of our former ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman. But I have to confess, I used to feel sorry for the Bush Administration when it would try to present a unified face to the world on issues only for a former president -- who, while a great and wonderful man, is about as important in contemporary policy debates as Angelina Jolie -- to go running around drinking tea with Hamas and sending mixed signals. I always worried that external audiences didn't quite get the former president's contemporary irrelevance. And I have never understood the animosity the March 8th crowd feels for Feltman. He always gets painted as this neo-conservative stooge of the Bush Administration, but the one time I met him and had coffee, in late 2006, he struck me as a) one of the more knowledgable observers of Lebanon and Lebanese politics I had ever met and b) someone who, ideology aside, would ruthlessly pursue U.S. interests at the expense of all other considerations. Now, that's not the kind of guy I want working for Amnesty International, true, but that is the kind of guy I want serving as a U.S. ambassador. (Though I have heard -- but cannot confirm -- that Feltman speaks no Arabic. I am not sure how important this is.) And I still have sympathy for this new administration with Jimmy Carter running around presenting this alternate U.S. foreign policy to the region while folks in Washington and the region are dealing with some really tough issues. Former presidents have different obligations, I feel, than the rest of us, which is part of the reason I admire President Bush's decision to sit at home, read the Dallas Morning News over his coffee and not feel the need to criticize the new administration in the way his former vice president has.