Mandela Owed More Respect


Justin C. Danilewitz (Commentary, "Mandela & Company," Nov. 10) is unhappy with the way South African President Nelson Mandela courts certain foreign leaders that are currently blacklisted by the Clinton Administration. As far as Danilewitz is concerned, meetings with the likes of Muammar el-Qaddafi and Yasser Arafat tarnish Mandela's stellar political credentials.

It is not only Danilewitz who thinks the company Mandela keeps is bad. Danilewitz cites American foreign policy and pending legislation to add moral weight to his claim that the South African President is mixing with a suspect crowd. The argument goes something like this: Iran is bad. Furthermore, America says Iran is bad. Therefore Mandela is wrong to do deals with Iran and should desist.

Danilewitz envisages a utopian, global order where good countries (and I presume America is, for his purposes, a good country) simply do business with other good countries. Bad countries should be ostracized until they become good.

There are a number of problems with this worldview.

First, the world is a complex place. Decisions about which nations one should have relations with are based on a number of competing factors and not just on a country's adherence to human rights and international law. Global security and the economic benefits of trade also play a part. Why is it okay for the Chinese Premier to come to America, speak at Harvard and chat with the President yet despicable that South Africa trades with Iran? Is Iran that much more of a nasty nation than China?

Is the current Iranian regime, which America shuns, so much worse than the Shah's Iran, a regime with which America did business? International 'Realpolitik,' as Danilewitz should know, is about advancing one's domestic and foreign goals while also being seen to respond to a number of different constituencies.

Second, by writing that Mandela should not have relations with "terrorists," Danilewitz grossly underestimates the value of dialogue in the international political setting. By maintaining a dialogue with such leaders, Mandela may be paving the way for better relations. Shunning Iran, Libya or Syria may do more to augment political violence than to diffuse it. Indeed, where would we be today in places like South Africa or Israel if warring parties had not agreed to sit down and talk with the enemy?

Lastly, Danilewitz hastily and erroneously arrives at the conclusion that all acts of political violence are wrong. Consequently Mandela's supposed espousal of nations that propagate such violence is wrong.

Danilewitz should consider history. Acts of violence, rebellion or terrorism were committed by the Americans against the British during the American Revolution. Similarly, in the present day, Danilewitz should realize both that complex scenarios cannot always be analysed in terms of 'right' or 'wrong' as well as acknowledging the potential fallibility of his own moral universe and the one propagated by the State Department.

After spending 27 years in prison, Mandela has forgiven his captors and is leading and uniting a previously wartorn South Africa. He gets my respect right there. Just because he does not toe the line of American foreign policy and does not share his Earl Grey with the right people does not mean he should lose it.