Strasbourg, France (Special to Informed Comment) – I am not quite able to remember the first time I met President Carter, but I do remember when I first went to see him at his home in Plains.
It was the fall of 2016 and I was thirty-six. I had been a mid-level staffer at The Carter Center in Atlanta for about a year and a half. My job, although it took me a while to figure this out, was to try to continue President and Mrs. Carter’s legacy of peacemaking in South Sudan and Sudan.
I was not sure I was up to the task.
I had just returned from a trip to Khartoum. There, a friendly American diplomat had asked me to dinner at his residence. I expected the usual exchange between Sudan watchers, comparing notes on the shifting currents and personalities in the country. Then – and it all remains a bit hazy in my mind, as is much of what followed – the diplomat explained that the United States and Sudan were discussing the potential partial lifting of American sanctions in exchange for concrete actions by the Sudanese. In 2016, Sudan and the Sudanese people faced severe American sanctions on par with those imposed on North Korea.
The U.S. government, however, had a problem. Since his indictment in 2009 by the International Criminal Court, the U.S. had a policy of no direct dialogue with Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan. As the sanctions discussions advanced, the U.S. needed assurances that al-Bashir himself agreed to the actions needed to reach agreement.
That is where President Carter came in. Carter had known al-Bashir for more than 30 years and had met with him to negotiate peace agreements, including a 1995 ceasefire in Sudan’s Civil War, known as the “Guinea Worm Ceasefire” because it was linked to an eradication campaign against that disease. The diplomat asked if Carter would act as an intermediary with al-Bashir. As the Obama era wound down and Trump awaited, time was short.
It was with that request in mind that I, with my boss Jordan Ryan, drove the two hours from Atlanta to Plains. Only later did I reflect on driving up to the modest house, the Secret Service agents letting us through the gates, and President Carter meeting us at the door. We sat on his couch. He asked me to go to the kitchen to help him prepare and bring the tea. Rosalynn was unwell, he said, and would not be joining.
I had never been so close to President Carter. His hands, his voice, even his smell reminded of me of my grandfathers – one genteel from Portsmouth, Virginia the other tough from Tucson, Arizona – fused into a single man. Somewhere inside myself I heard, “Just talk to him like you would talk to Bill,” the name I called my maternal grandfather.
Jordan and I updated Carter on the situation in Sudan and the U.S. openness to lifting some sanctions. He said he had worked with the U.S. before to convince al-Bashir to take actions in return for sanctions relief. Al-Bashir had delivered on his end of those bargains. The U.S., he felt, had not done so. Carter knew well al-Bashir’s crimes, but he had, Carter said, “always kept his word to me.”
Then he turned to me and – I will never forget this – said “John, what do you think?” I had expected him to ask Jordan’s views, not mine. Then like a revelation it came to me – “this man has been President of the United States. He knows the real deal, knows the person who has been on the ground.” I am not able to remember what exactly I said in response but it was in sum: “It’s worth a try and there are a lot of factors in our favor this time.”
President Carter did not seem to me to be enthusiastic – but he agreed. He agreed to my recommendation!
The next steps followed one after the other in a blur: we arranged calls between President Carter and then-Secretary of State John Kerry and with the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Donald Booth; I talked back-and-forth with the National Security Council; Carter sent a letter to al-Bashir with the terms of the proposed deal; I talked to al-Bashir’s advisors; and we arranged a fast-track visit by one of them to Plains, where he met with Carter, Jordan, and myself. One day during this time, I saw President Carter at The Carter Center in Atlanta and he said, smiling, “I’m finally seeing you not at my home.”
Somewhere along the way I met al-Bashir. Through the fog of action and memory, I do not remember exactly when. What I do recall is that what struck me was that al-Bashir, the dictator and war criminal, had clearly just spilled tea on his shirt.
In early 2017, President Obama eased sanctions on Sudan. This step was good for the Sudanese people, even if many layers of sanctions remained. The easing demonstrated that Sudan and the United States could establish a good relationship. It contributed in a small way to the cracks that led in 2018 to the fall of the al-Bashir regime. The immense credit for that, of course, goes to the brave Sudanese who made it happen.
As President Carter enters hospice care and as I reflect on his life – his dignity and grit, his boldness and kindness, his humanity and statesmanship – I confess most of all I think of an immeasurable, personal gift: he believed in me, and we did something good together.
And so I end this homage here, with a pledge: My dear President Carter – please accept my heartfelt gratitude and know that I will honor your legacy and your spirit by fighting on for human decency, for right, and for peace.