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Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has been awarded the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize. It is a fitting selection. Mr. Carter has worked tirelessly for peace and to help the poor and the powerless throughout his career; his efforts deserve the recognition afforded by the Nobel selection committee. Just as important, the timing of the prize is right. Mr. Carter’s commitment to the peaceful resolution of problems and the rule of law is desperately needed as the world contemplates the prospect of war with Iraq.

Announcing its selection last week, the Nobel committee cited Mr. Carter’s “vital contribution” to the Camp David accords, which he personally brokered to end the state of war between Israel and Egypt. (Menachim Begin and Anwar Sadat won the peace prize for that historic choice; Mr. Carter was not included because his nomination was not received in time.) It also applauded his work in conflict resolution and the promotion of human rights after his presidency.

Since leaving the White House, Mr. Carter has promoted peace talks between Ethiopia and Eritrean rebels. In 1994 he led a U.S. delegation to Haiti to persuade the military junta to step aside and avert a U.S. invasion. In a move that irritated then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, Mr. Carter took it upon himself to go to Pyongyang to head off a nuclear dispute between the United States and North Korea. He has headed observer teams for dozens of general elections worldwide, from Panama to East Timor. Throughout, he has campaigned tirelessly for democracy, human rights and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

The primary instrument of his work — apart from his personality — has been the Carter Center, an Atlanta, Georgia, think tank that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. In addition to running conferences and sending delegations to monitor elections, the Carter Center has teamed up with other institutions, such as the Nippon Foundation, to fight diseases such as guinea-worm disease and river blindness worldwide.

Mr. Carter’s postpresidential successes followed a less satisfying presidency. Mr. Carter, a former peanut farmer who became governor of Georgia, was a virtual unknown when he won the White House in 1976. He defeated President Gerald Ford, who assumed the presidency after the resignation of Mr. Richard Nixon in 1974. Mr. Carter’s campaign stressed the need for honesty and integrity in the aftermath of the Watergate scandals. Once in office, Mr. Carter seemed to self-destruct. He was at odds with congressional members of his own party, and his image of simple, honest virtue did not sit well with an American public more accustomed to a more regal presidency.

Stylistic miscues were compounded by external events: oil crises, economic stagnation, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the 444-day Iran hostage crisis. In 1980, Mr. Carter was denied a second term by Mr. Ronald Reagan, and he headed back to Plains, Georgia, his hometown, to contemplate his next step.

Mr. Carter has conceded that defeat was important — if not instrumental — in shaping his life. He left Washington thinking that he had 25 years of active life ahead of him and he vowed to use his influence as a former president to “fill vacuums.” Mr. Carter reckons that if he had won a second term, he would not have “undertaken the scope and breadth of what we’re doing now.”

And it is, as the Nobel Committee noted, vitally important that Mr. Carter do what he is doing now. The citation for the award pointedly observed: “In a situation currently marked by threats of the use of power, Carter has stood by the principles that conflicts must as far as possible be resolved through mediation and international co-operation based on international law, respect for human rights and economic development.”

The chairman of the committee awarding the prize went so far as to say that the award should be seen as a “criticism” of the Bush administration foreign policy and “a kick in the leg to all that follow the same line as the U.S.” Other foreign-policymakers echoed that sentiment; Canada’s foreign minister noted that the award was “a very positive sign about how we would like to see the U.S. behave in world affairs.”

Ever the peacekeeper, Mr. Carter did not comment on that particular issue, although he did criticize U.S. policy in a recent editorial. He decried U.S. policy toward Iraq, human rights and foreign policy in general. He is unlikely to have much effect on this administration’s thinking. Their views of the world are separated by a vast gulf. Worse, there may be an element of personal animosity involved: The Bush administration is composed of many individuals who were forced to leave the White House in 1976 when Mr. Carter won the presidency. Whatever the reason for their differences, it is plain that Mr. Carter’s views are needed now more than ever.

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