One day after almost single-handedly halting a U.S. invasion of Haiti, Mr. Carter was pushing ahead on a completely different front: trying to broker a first-ever summit meeting between North and South Korea.
The former president, who turns 70 next week, has become the Mother Theresa of global politics. Flitting tirelessly from trouble spot to trouble spot, he's a free-lance diplomat with a deceptively simple agenda. Do good. End suffering. Make peace.
In essence, Mr. Carter has established his own foreign policy, one that makes shrewd use of modern diplomatic tools -- such as worldwide cable TV -- that scarcely existed when his one-term presidency ended 14 years ago.
His recent efforts have spurred talk, perhaps prematurely, that he will finally receive the Nobel Peace Prize, which eluded him after the 1978 Camp David accords. (Instead, the award went to the men he brought together: President Anwar el Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel.)
But there is a flip side to his high-minded trouble-shooting, as President Clinton found out again this week. The fiercely independent former president isn't always in sync with current U.S. policy, and that can mean embarrassment -- or worse -- for the Clinton administration.
"Carter pulled our chestnuts out of the fire," an administration aide said shortly after the Carter deal with Haiti allowed U.S. forces to enter the country peacefully. "But he's a loose cannon."
That point has been amply, and repeatedly, illustrated in recent months.
In June, Mr. Carter pulled the United States and North Korea back from the brink of confrontation with a "private" mission to Pyongyang that extracted a promise from the late Premier Kim Il Sung to freeze his country's nuclear program and reopen talks with the United States. But at the same time, Mr. Carter sharply criticized U.S. policy and, at one point, erroneously told Mr. Kim that the Clinton administration had decided to back away from using sanctions against his country.
The ultimate success or failure of that mission is still very much in dispute. Critics believe that Mr. Carter was duped by the North Korean leader, who essentially won concessions from the United States without having to make any new promises to roll back his nuclear program.
Mr. Kim has since died and been replaced by his son, Kim Jong Il, but the succession has had little effect on the state of play.
During his Korean trip, Mr. Carter angered White House aides by asking for permission to announce the nuclear freeze on Cable News Network (which, like Mr. Carter, is based in Atlanta and with which the former president enjoys a close working relationship), rather than keep it a secret until he has returned to brief Mr. Clinton.
This week, he made no such request. Concerned that the Haiti deal "was about to come apart," as he later put it, Mr. Carter picked up the telephone at 3 a.m. Monday in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House, where he was spending the night. He called CNN President Tom Johnson to let him know that he would be available for an interview at 7 a.m.
Before many White House staffers had arrived at their desks that morning, Mr. Carter had gone on global TV to give his version of the agreement, making it clear that the deal called for the United States and the Haitian dictatorship to work in harmony during the transition period and that there was no requirement for Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and the other military leaders to leave the country.
Only the other two members of the Carter negotiating team, Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn and retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, knew that the former president was going on CNN that morning,
according to Terrence B. Adamson, Mr. Carter's personal lawyer. "The administration might have asked him not to," he added.
Critical of U.S. policy
Mr. Carter has harshly criticized U.S. policy toward Haiti, even as his own efforts were forcing Mr. Clinton to alter that policy yet again. Yesterday, the former president again called on the nTC Clinton administration to deal directly with the civilian leaders installed by Haiti's military dictators, advice that supporters of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide strongly oppose.
"Somehow or another we have to have communication," said Mr. Carter, who has continued to talk by phone with General Cedras since leaving Haiti Sunday night.
Perhaps Mr. Carter's most inflammatory remark was one he made in the heat of the negotiations in Haiti, then repeated to reporters after his return to Atlanta.
"I made a very emotional speech about why I came down there," he said. "One of the things was that I was ashamed of my country's policy."
Mr. Nunn hastened yesterday to put those words in context. "Our embargo was hurting the children of Haiti," he explained, adding that "I would not have used those terms myself."
'This is uncomfortable'
For his part, Mr. Clinton has had to grapple with the other drawbacks to the use of a former president as an envoy, including the delicate matter of ordering one of his predecessors around. As U.S. combat planes were en route to Haiti Sunday evening, Mr. Clinton recounted later, "I told President Carter, I said, 'This is uncomfortable for me. We've been friends a long time. I'm going to have to order you out of there in 30 more minutes. You have got to get out.' "
Pushing the limits of what a private citizen can do, Mr. Carter has built upon the success of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement he brokered 16 years ago and established a unique post-presidential role for himself.
Operating out of the campus-like Carter Center in Atlanta, with its staff of more than 100, Mr. Carter has monitored elections throughout the world (including the 1990 Haiti vote that brought Father Aristide to power), worked to eradicate disease and hunger in Africa, and mediated conflicts in places like Ethiopia and Central America.
It was at his spacious Atlanta office, overlooking well-tended gardens and a small pond, that an exhausted Mr. Carter met on Monday with North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations and yesterday with South Korea's ambassador to the United States. After those talks, the former president released a statement offering to mediate between the two Koreas, which have been in a state of war since the 1940s.
After his repudiation by the voters in 1980 -- for his economic failures at home and the image of weakness he projected abroad -- Mr. Carter surrounded himself with a new set of aides. But one holdover from the White House days, former National Security Council staffer Robert Pastor, has played a key role in the Haitian drama.
And as Mr. Carter assumed center stage in the East Room of the White House on Monday, it seemed almost as if he were back in charge again.
"I had a telephone conversation within the last five minutes from Dr. Robert Pastor, who is in the office with the military leaders of both nations. He said everything is going perfectly," Mr. Carter reported to the nation, as Mr. Clinton stood awkwardly by his side.