Presidential Debate of October 22, 2012: AHA Roundtable

The Wrong Side of Human Rights and History

Carol Anderson, October 2012

Carol AndersonIf the White House treats Iran, as Governor Romney claimed last night, “the same way we treated ... apartheid ... South Africa,” then Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his regime, “the greatest national security threat” to the United States, have nothing to worry about.  When, in 1948, the Nazi-loving Nationalist Party came to power in Pretoria and instituted a series of policies that contravened everything the world had learned from taking on Adolf Hitler and the Axis powers, America used its power and prestige to block the United Nations from condemning a regime that openly embraced hard-core racism, regional aggression, and contempt for the international community.  Whether the U.S. government was South Africa’s “reluctant uncle,” to use Tim Borstelmann’s phrase, or its Reaganesque knight in shining armor riding to save the apartheid regime from the consequences of a policy that put it on a collision course with the global community, the end result was the same: the White House chose geo-strategy over human rights and, in the process, undermined both.

Tellingly, that is the same decision the Eisenhower administration made in 1953.  The United States toppled a democratically-elected government in Iran, installed the tyrant, Shah Reza Pahlavi, and privileged “security” wrought by terror and torture over the kind of stability brought on by “human rights, human dignity, free enterprise, freedom of expression, elections.” In doing so, the United States not only undercut democracy, but gave overwhelming voice and an unimpeachable credibility to radical Islamists who rule Iran today and are now “the greatest threat of all.”   History clearly has consequences.

Similarly, the same skewed calculus – security over human rights – led the United States in 1961 to plot the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Congo.  While the Belgians apparently beat the CIA to the punch, the U.S. backing of anyone except whom the people in Congo freely chose transformed one of the most mineral-rich nations on earth into a “vampire state,” whose brutal, U.S.-supported regime of Mobutu Sese Seko drained what was then Zaire of its lifeblood.  Now, a shadow of its early democratic promise, Congo is an “epicenter of violence” today.  It is the land of unspeakable horrors, rape, and slavery.  Yet, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than five million have been killed to date in what many observers call the deadliest conflict since World War II, didn’t even get a mention in a debate on foreign policy.

What absorbed the attention of both candidates were the Middle East and the flexing of military might.  Scattered throughout were some platitudes about the need for the people in Syria, Iran, and Egypt (but clearly not Palestine) to have jobs, education, “a roof over their heads,” and free elections, which would dissolve the fodder that feeds terrorism.  In that formulation, both President Obama and Governor Romney were actually speaking of human rights, almost.  Kind of.  Un peu.  Notably, for both men who want to lead “the greatest democracy on earth,” human rights barely made a cameo appearance last night.  And, like most cameos, you will have to look hard to find its name among the credits.   Even more telling, its presence on the screen is only a shadow of its more robust self.  The greatest hint of that – in a Yogi Berra déja vu all over again moment – was the openly voiced concern about the democratically-elected president of Egypt, whose rise to power, after decades of Hosni Mubarak’s brutal dictatorship, supposedly signaled, according to Romney, “a pretty dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for that region.”

At some point the President of the United States and the American people must recognize that democracy means that we do not get to pick other nation's leaders, that digging out from the dregs, debris, and broken pieces of societies wracked by dictatorship, violence, and corruption takes time, and that the process is often messy.  And, until we reach that conclusion, the United States will, just like with apartheid South Africa, invariably find itself on the wrong side of human rights and history.

Carol Anderson is associate professor of African American studies at Emory University.