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Carter verdict pending: Is he master or dupe?


WASHINGTON -- The spectacle of American troops idly watching as Haitian military police beat demonstrators in Port-au-Prince will no doubt feed the view that former President Jimmy Carter was duped in his deal with Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras to avert a shooting invasion of the country.

Exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's initial coolness toward the arrangement that makes Cedras and his military police partners with the United States in the transition of power leaves little doubt that Aristide really believes Carter has been taken to the cleaners, and President Clinton with him. He is not alone.

Furthermore, Carter's report that at one point in the negotiations he told Cedras "I was ashamed of my country's policy" in the imposition of a strangling economic embargo on Haiti makes Carter sound almost pro-Cedras. So does the incredible Los Angeles Times published transcript of a phone call in which Carter invited Cedras to teach Carter's Sunday school class. Incredible, that is, if you don't know Jimmy the Good.

The bottom line, however, is that Carter succeeded in his volunteered mission to Haiti to make an invasion by force unnecessary, after all the extended efforts of the Clinton administration had failed to get Cedras to agree to step aside.

In understanding Carter, it must be remembered that his personal work in life, beyond doing carpentry in the Habitat program to build housing for the needy, has been striving to prevent bloodshed between and within nations. His Carter Center for Conflict Resolution in Atlanta has labored diligently and imaginatively to develop techniques to achieve that end, with Carter often the chief negotiator.

After a number of other personal intercessions in Central America, Carter stepped into the developing crisis over North Korea's quest for nuclear weapons capability -- to the chagrin of the White House at first -- and opened the door to direct talks. He ruffled some administration feathers by speaking respectfully the "incredible reverence" for North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung, just as he said of Cedras, denounced earlier by Clinton as a brutal thug, that "his word of honor is good."

But Carter as president and private citizen has always been a man willing to extend trust beyond the limits others would accept, to see light where others saw darkness. His trust, although put to severe strains in the marathon Camp David talks between the leaders of Israel and Egypt, in the end produced a remarkable result.

There is more, however, than an indefatigable trust and a loose tongue involved in Carter's behavior in the Haiti situation. A conflict resolution expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Saadia Touval, noted in a National Public Radio interview that it was necessary as a "negotiating technique" for Carter to put some distance between himself and Clinton, in order to be viewed by Cedras as an impartial mediator.

Another expert, Professor Ronald Steel of the University of Southern California, told NPR that it was critical that Carter function as a sort of "marriage counselor," while taking care not to go beyond what Clinton's objectives were.

Pretty obviously Carter fudged on that latter point in an agreement that permits Cedras to remain in power until Oct. 15 and, presumably, in Haiti beyond that if he so chooses. And Clinton clearly never envisioned using the existing military police to keep civilian order during the risk-laden transition period.

Only developments in Haiti dur ing that period and beyond will establish whether Carter will have been a master negotiator or a dupe, and whether the trust placed by Clinton in his personal intervention was wise or foolish. But Carter's remarks and performance are best understood when it is recognized that he sees the demonstration of respect -- whether deserved or not -- as an essential tool to achieve a desired result in conflict resolution.

At the same time, Touval says, "Carter has been very skillful in using the media to influence public opinion in support of his tactics." By talking openly to the press about what he has done, Carter has maintained his image of independence that is also essential to effective mediation of perilous disputes.

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