Jimmy Carter has backtracked from his comment suggesting that George W. Bush is the worst president in history, and let's hope his gesture soothes relations between the two. Because if there is a place in the next world where unsuccessful presidents go to pay for their sins, Carter and Bush will be sharing a cell for a long, long time.
Bush had a Carteresque moment the other day when a bird left a calling card on his sleeve during an outdoor news conference. Like his predecessor's 1979 confrontation with a killer rabbit, it suggested the president is so unpopular that even lower species are turning against him.
Failing at the job and suffering low approval ratings are not the only things the two have in common. In fact, beyond surface differences like party and ideology, there is ample evidence that Bush is to Carter what Mary-Kate is to Ashley.
Carter presided over a country wracked by economic chaos, violence, political disarray and a sense of national decline. Bush does as well -- though this time, the country is Iraq rather than the United States. Carter stood helpless as Iran took Americans hostage at our embassy in Tehran. Bush has stood helpless while Iran pursues the means to hold its neighbors hostage with nuclear weapons.
Carter was responsible for a military debacle, the 1980 effort to rescue our Iran hostages, that killed eight American service personnel. Bush is responsible for a military debacle, the occupation of Iraq, that has killed more than 3,300 American service personnel. Under Carter, Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan bled the Soviet military. Under Bush, Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan bleed the U.S. military.
Carter, as an ex-president, helped negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korea that the other side failed to live up to. Bush negotiated a nuclear deal with North Korea that the other side has failed to live up to. Carter acquired a reputation as stubborn, self-righteous and unwilling to listen to anyone outside his inner circle. Notice a pattern here?
Both men had life-altering religious experiences as adults, and both profited from the support of evangelicals. Both campaigned in favor of a more modest foreign policy. Bush's 2000 declaration that we should be "a humble nation" echoed what Carter said in 1976: "A strong nation, like a strong person, can afford to be gentle, firm, thoughtful and restrained."
Once in office, though, their restraint abated. In its place emerged a messianic dream of remaking the world in our image. The former thought we could spread democracy and human rights by moral suasion. The latter thought we could spread democracy and human rights by invasion. They were surprised by the world's resistance to reform.