Mary E. Stuckey


On her book Jimmy Carter,Human Rights,and the National Agenda

Cover Interview of June 28, 2009

A close-up

Selecting one particular close-up is hard: I’m trying to make the argument that all the different elements of Carter’s treatment of human rights were important.  If just one thing had to pulled out, however, it would be the chapter on how four presidents used “human rights.”  I looked at the ways Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all used similar language—sometimes to very similar ends and sometimes to very different ones.

Carter wanted to see human rights at the center of our foreign policy—and he wanted to be able to criticize and applaud any nation, whether ally or not, on human rights grounds.  He was often criticized, in fact, for being kinder to our opponents than to our allies.  Reagan had a very different approach to human rights, and tended to overlook human rights problems in allied countries while focusing on abuses in communist nations.  Bill Clinton, governing after the Cold War, took a complex approach to human rights, in which he used the issue as a rationale for intervention in some areas (Bosnia) while avoiding intervention in other areas (Rwanda).  And George W. Bush, of course, is the most problematic of the lot, for he used human rights as a reason for the Iraq invasion, and yet had to deal with events like the Guantanamo prison scandal.

This history is crucial because on the one hand, it doesn’t matter who is president—the institution is strong, and whoever sits behind that desk is going to make the same decisions.  On the other hand, it matters a great deal who the president is—some decisions, such as the choice to go to war in Iraq, are extraordinarily dependent upon who is in office.  The trick is knowing which decisions are which.