Matthew Hodes found his niche in life 14 years ago while working as a lawyer for the United Nations. It was an interesting job, but ...
"I wanted a broader purpose, a broader cause in life," says Hodes, who is departing this month as the Carter Center's conflict resolution director, a wordy title that means he tries to stop people from killing each other.
In June 1993, however, Hodes was a desk-bound U.N. legal factotum when he was given the opportunity that would shape his career. Twenty-four U.N. peacekeepers from Pakistan had been ambushed and slain in Mogadishu, Somalia. Because Hodes had credentials as an Army officer and prosecutor, he was asked to be part of a fact-finding contingent.
"My supervisor told me, 'Don't agree too quickly. You'll be flying into a place where most people want to fly out of,'" Hodes recalls.
He's been winging into such hellholes ever since, a leader on teams trying to quell bloody wars and fratricidal conflicts.
In the Balkans, he tried to sort out differences between a Bosnian Muslim leader who was threatening to attack a French battalion that owed rent to the chieftain. Much more importantly, Hodes was part of the team that crafted and executed the New Year's Eve 1994 cease-fire between Bosnian Serbs and Muslims that ended the 1,000-day siege of Sarajevo.
He joined the Carter Center in 2001, and has wrestled with such thorny problems as the three-sided conflict in Nepal – the government versus the monarchy versus the Maoists – where six years ago the crown prince murdered his parents and other members of the royal family before killing himself.
Hodes rushed to Venezuela after an attempted 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez, an event in which the Bush administration had at least the tacit complicity of egging on the insurgents against the democratically elected government. "It's difficult sometimes, but Carter had established credibility with Chavez," Hodes says.
And, yes, through all of the hot spots, more than a few bullets have gone whizzing past Hodes' head. "The worst places were Bosnia and Somalia," he says, "and of the two, Somalia was by far the scariest. But I'm still here."
Hodes is going into private practice as an international lawyer. His résumé is now bolstered with President Carter's name. Depending on your politics, that's solid gold or a dead weight.
Hodes is one of the handful of people who have watched Carter up close, and pondered the enigma of the man whose greatness will be measured not by his crisis-beset presidential tenure but by his accomplishments afterward. For Hodes, the key to Carter is his military background, and the lawyer offers an anecdote from the Balkans to explain.
While in Bosnia, Hodes advised a Canadian general – the issue was raw survival if things went to hell and U.N. forces had to evacuate. "The general would ask about runway lengths, load capacities, road links to airports," Hodes says. "Then he'd inquire about seaports, times to off-load ships. What was going on, I realized, was a multilayered, multidiscipline approach to making decisions. When I met Carter, I saw it immediately. He had it, too."
At Carter's home office, Hodes comments, the most prominent mementos are from the former president's days at the U.S. Naval Academy, and a picture of Carter the young Naval officer on a submarine with the father of the nuclear fleet, Adm. Hyman Rickover. "And there are only two things on the coffee table," Hodes says, "a picture book on Annapolis and the photo book from the  launching of the USS Jimmy Carter."
What was it like to work for Carter? "He's incredibly demanding, doesn't suffer fools, but it's that multilayered approach that shows," Hodes says. "His analysis is never simple. He's always weighing and balancing, weighing and balancing."
It's impossible to mention Jimmy Carter nowadays without confronting "the book." Carter ignited a firestorm with the publishing last November of Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. Many have condemned it for faulty history. Others have applauded a prominent American for finally taking what they see as a balanced analysis. Behind all of this is a sometimes forgotten fact that Carter crafted the only true success story in peace negotiations between Israel and Arabs, the 1978 Camp David Accords.
Hodes defends his president – but with caveats. "When critics call Carter anti-Semitic, it pains me and I speak as a Jewish-American," he says. "Nothing in the book lends credence to that. Carter's history was incomplete [in the book], but it wasn't inaccurate. His assessment of the Clinton administration efforts had flaws.
"But the weight of his logic in how conditions got to where they are" with the Israelis and Palestinians, Hodes says, "and how to get out the current state, that's solid. His critics express anger at his rendition of history, but there's not one comment about his suggestion for the future. None of his critics provide an alternate solution."
Hodes himself was intricately involved in what's called the "Geneva Accord," a Carter Center-backed effort by influential Israelis and Palestinians to draft conditions under which peace could be achieved. That document was signed in 2003, and Hodes' participation earned praise from Carter. "Matt worked behind the scenes on behalf of the Center to assist Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in designing a model agreement ... to show how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be resolved if diplomats and politicians make a commitment to peace," Carter wrote me in an e-mail. "This was an important contribution to seeking a path for peace in the region."
Still, achieving goodwill is an awesome challenge when it comes to the Middle East. "I was in Kuala Lumpur in December," Hodes says. "This was after Carter's book was published and I'd been trying to get American Jews, many of whom hadn't read the book but criticized it nonetheless, to think dispassionately about his message.
"Malaysians would come up to me, shake my hand. They were committed to Palestine, and didn't even believe Israel had a right to exist. They'd say how wonderful it is that my boss agreed with them. I'd think, 'Oh, my God, more people who haven't read the book.'"