A Useful Rebuke on Rights

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 28/01/07):

When Desmond Tutu speaks out about morality in politics and foreign policy, his nation and the rest of the world should listen. By criticizing the government he helped bring into being, the South African Nobel laureate raises in his own distinctive fashion some of the key issues of our time.

Tutu, along with Nelson Mandela, has been instrumental in guiding South Africa’s peaceful and democratic transition from the tyranny of a white minority to black majority rule. Over four decades, Tutu has established a reputation for integrity, wisdom and fairness that has few equals on the world stage.

The retired archbishop of Cape Town also speaks his mind. He did so after his government offered diplomatic comfort to Burma’s oppressive military regime on Jan. 12. That was when South Africa cast its first vote as a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council to block a resolution condemning Burma for flagrant human rights abuses. The resolution also drew vetoes from Russia and China, which are determined to avoid scrutiny of their own actions to crush dissent.

“I am deeply disappointed by our vote. It is a betrayal of our own noble past,” Tutu said in an e-mail to the Associated Press. “If others had used the arguments we are using today when we asked them for their support against apartheid, we might still have been unfree.”

The government claims that it voted on “technical” grounds to give a pass to Burma (also known as Myanmar) because that country does not qualify as “a threat to international peace.” In other words: Not our problem, man.

But Tutu rightly suggests that because of its history, post-apartheid South Africa has a special responsibility to pursue a foreign policy that supports international action to help oppressed populations.

South Africa is a rare example where international economic pressure and censure helped to halt gross racial discrimination and human rights violations and to bring positive change. Sanctions and international ostracism of the apartheid government worked in ways they did not on the oil-producing police state of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and in other places. While South Africans deserve primary credit for deciding collectively to transform their country, Tutu is characteristically forthright in pointing to the help they received — and should now be prepared to extend to others in distant lands.

His plea also underlines the stunning failure of President Thabo Mbeki’s government to slow the slide of neighboring Zimbabwe into misery and tyranny under the paranoid rule of Robert Mugabe, or to show compassion to its own citizens suffering with AIDS. Mbeki’s African National Congress risks being judged by history as having given back little once in power.

Tutu swings a needed spotlight on the evolving role of moral causes in foreign policy, a subject Americans have been debating episodically since Jimmy Carter ordered his State Department to make human rights a priority, with mixed results. The U.S. debate has taken on new urgency as fresh approaches to Iraq are sought by both President Bush and his critics.

Tutu is obviously not part of that discussion. But his broader point is: Our debate cannot be conducted honestly without reference to the moral responsibility toward Iraqis that past U.S. actions have created for us as a nation. Just as South Africans should be guided by the recent past, Americans must recall their government’s history with Iraq.

It is a history of fomenting and then betraying successive uprisings by Kurds and Shiites against the genocidal regime in Baghdad and of offering aid and succor to that regime in its war against Iran. It is a history of more than a decade of limited warfare and economic sanctions that helped grind Iraqi society to dust even before the invasion of 2003.

For better and for worse, President Bush has pursued a values-based foreign policy that is being widely criticized for ignoring U.S. national interests. The disasters of Iraq are driving the pendulum of American opinion back to an interests-based or “realistic” foreign policy that would blank out the heavy responsibilities of history.

But the pursuit of interests to the exclusion of values is no more sustainable in a democratic society than is the pursuit of values to the exclusion of interests. Democratic governments must establish a judicious balance.

Bush has failed to underpin his narrowly American approach to values with a persuasive appeal to international moral standards and conscience. Desmond Tutu’s reproach to his own government is a cogent reminder of the perils and ignominy that such failure brings.