Falling Short

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The speech went through half a dozen drafts. Twice that many hands tinkered with it, inserting paragraphs here, deleting phrases there. Anecdotes were added, then dropped. Republican Senators trooped into the Oval Office to ! argue that it should be toughened; others telephoned White House aides to have it weakened. A committee of competing factions swapped sentences and traded adjectives. On the day the address was to be given, a former aide to George Shultz was called in to verify whether some marginal notes were from the hand of the Secretary of State; they were not and thus were ignored. The haggling over President Reagan's long-awaited speech on U.S. policy toward South Africa reflected the deep uncertainty that exists on that issue even within the Administration. Many White House aides thought it was politically self-destructive and ought not be given at all. At one point a decision was made to cancel it. In the end, though, it had one particularly firm and powerful advocate inside the White House: Ronald Reagan, who had never given a major address on South Africa in his 6 1/2 years as President, wanted to set the record straight.

His 25-minute speech, given not in the glare of prime time but to at afternoon gathering of foreign-policy groups, offered nothing new in the way of putting pressure on the intransigent Afrikaner-led South African government. Although it was meant to calm the debate over sanctions, it brought the issue to such a head that by week's end Reagan's aides were scurrying to hint that his policy could change. The Senate, led by rebellious Republicans, proceeded to draw up a bill to apply further sanctions. Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop-elect of South Africa, called the speech "nauseating" and added that "the West, for my part, can go to hell." As New York Times Columnist James Reston put it, "Reagan tried unsuccessfully to persuade the extremists on both sides and lost the moderates in the process."

Although billed as the culmination of a two-month "reassessment" of U.S. policy, the speech was actually a reassertion of the President's policy of constructive engagement, a call for continuing efforts to persuade rather than pressure Pretoria to abandon apartheid and speed efforts to prepare for power sharing with South Africa's black majority. By turns defiant and defensive, Reagan seesawed between condemnations of apartheid as "morally wrong and politically unacceptable" and qualified praise of South African leaders for bringing about "dramatic change." He denounced the "Soviet-armed guerrillas of the African National Congress," the banned but influential black political party led by Oliver Tambo and the imprisoned Nelson Mandela.

The President argued against what he called the "emotional clamor for punitive sanctions." Such a "historic act of folly," he insisted, would wreck the economies of neighboring African nations, undermine the forces for reform in South Africa and endanger America's strategic interests. "Victims of an economic boycott of South Africa would be the very people we seek to help," he said. "We need not a Western withdrawal but deeper involvement by the Western business community, as agents of change and progress and growth."

While suggesting that he was seeking a middle course on South Africa, Reagan cast the problem in terms of polar alternatives. "We must stay and work," he said, "not cut and run." If Congress imposes sanctions, Reagan said, "it would destroy America's flexibility, discard our diplomatic leverage and deepen the crisis."

The speech did make certain demands on the South African government: the President called for Pretoria to announce a timetable for the elimination of apartheid laws; to release all political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela; to lift the ban on "black political movements," presumably including the African National Congress. He asked that the white government begin a dialogue with its opponents to create a system "that rests on the consent of the governed." None of these, however, was a departure from previous Administration policy.

If the speech seemed to lack a raison d'etre, there was a reason for it. The President's address was in part designed to showcase a symbolic centerpiece: the announcement that the U.S. was sending a black Ambassador to South Africa. The name of the nominee had already seeped out: Robert Brown, a North Carolina businessman and former Nixon staffer. But in further checking, the Administration became concerned about Brown's business association in the past with Alhaji Umaru Dikko, an exiled Nigerian leader who has been charged with embezzling millions of dollars. Brown was hastily persuaded by the White House to withdraw his name.

Missing from the speech was any sense that the Administration's touted reassessment of its South African policy had produced much of anything. That process began at a National Security Council meeting in June, after South Africa declared its current state of emergency, cracking down on dissent and the press. The President vented his frustration with the Administration's inability to articulate its South African policy. "I know what we're against," he said. "Can we state exactly what we're for down there?" But from the outset, there was the unshakable conviction that sanctions would only hurt those they were designed to help, which is why the search for symbolic measures came down to finding a black Ambassador.

After a ten-page draft of the speech written by Communications Director Pat Buchanan was circulated a week ago, State Department bureaucrats argued that it should be canceled. So did White House political operatives, and Chief of Staff Donald Regan eventually agreed. National Security Adviser John Poindexter, on the other hand, contended that even without concrete measures, the speech would put more pressure on Pretoria. A tentative decision had been made to scuttle the speech before Shultz arrived for a meeting with the President. The Secretary took Poindexter's side; he wanted a clear statement of support for the policies he was due to defend on Capitol Hill the following day. Also, the Administration did not want the U.S. to get ahead of its Western allies on the sanctions issue, and Reagan in particular wanted to show his solidarity with his friend British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Western leader most outspoken against sanctions.

The official Democratic response took the form of a pointed, closely reasoned address by Pennsylvania Congressman William Gray, chairman of the House Budget Committee, who branded the U.S. and Britain the "co-guarantors of apartheid." The President insisted that sanctions do not work, noted Gray, yet he has imposed them on some 20 nations throughout the world, including Poland and Libya, where they stood far less chance of being effective. Because sanctions are what Pretoria fears most, said Gray, they are the best bet for getting South Africa to act. "Without economic sanctions," he said, "without pressure, without increasing the cost of apartheid, there is no reason for South Africa to dismantle apartheid."

Gray agreed with the President that the nations surrounding South Africa might be hurt by sanctions, but he noted that they had issued a joint statement supporting sanctions "even if it means some hardship for their own nations and economies." Ultimately, Gray saw the President as having a moral double standard toward the oppressed: "The President has preached that the Reagan doctrine is to fight for freedom. Why is the doctrine being denied in Pretoria?" Other reaction on Capitol Hill ranged along a narrow spectrum from outrage to disappointment; virtually no one from either party came to the President's side. Democrats generally saw Reagan as the victim of moral myopia and of enlisting on the wrong side of history. Said Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa: "President Reagan abandoned any pretense of providing moral leadership."

What worried the White House more was the revolt among moderate Republicans, who saw the President as being out of step with Congress and perhaps the voters. Republican Senator Richard Lugar, a consistent ally of the President's and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had urged Reagan to propose a new tack. He was clearly discouraged by the result. "I think the President needs to do more," he said afterward. "I had hoped the President would take this occasion for an extraordinary message to the world." Republican Senator Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, a respected voice on African policy, seemed to speak for many fellow Republicans. "I was deeply disappointed with the President's speech," she said. "It gave no new direction." The day after the speech, in what could be described as a ritual sacrifice, Shultz testified for four hours in a crowded Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room. The Secretary went out of his way to suggest that the Administration was not inflexible in its opposition to sanctions and that he was interested in talking with the leaders of the ANC, which he called "an important part of the South African political equation." Despite this peace offering, he was excoriated by a succession of Democratic Senators, topped off by a histrionic display of outrage by Delaware Senator Joseph Biden.

Biden ridiculed Shultz's prepared remarks, suggesting that the Secretary's speech reminded him of the cries of "Go slow" that tried to put the brakes on the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s. Shultz, reading between the lines, said he "hated to hear a U.S. Senator call for violence." Biden erupted, his voice reaching heights of calculated fury. Jabbing the manuscript of Shultz's testimony with his index finger, he shouted, "I'm ashamed of this country that puts out a policy like this that says nothing, nothing! It says, 'Continue the same.' We put no timetable on it. We make no specific demands. We don't set it down. I'm ashamed that's our policy. That's what I'm ashamed of. I'm ashamed of the lack of moral backbone to this policy. You may be ashamed!"

By going ahead with his speech when he had nothing new to say, Reagan fed Congress's appetite for acting on its own. Indeed, if the President is lagging behind the public parade on South Africa, Congress is out ahead. In June, the House passed by a voice vote a sweeping bill that calls for the U.S. and most American companies to withdraw their assets from South Africa. The amendment, sponsored by California Democrat Ronald Dellums, gives companies 180 days to pack up and leave, a withdrawal that would involve $1.3 billion in direct investment. New loans would be halted and future trade prohibited, except for strategic minerals.

Senate Democrats, led by Ted Kennedy and Alan Cranston, have offered a slightly less drastic measure that includes relief for black South Africans and neighboring countries. Although it has little chance of being passed intact, it has forced moderate Senators to seek a compromise. Lugar, who pledged to work with both Shultz and Senate Democrats, expected to spend part of the weekend finishing a plan directed at putting maximum pressure on the white ruling class while sparing the black majority unnecessary economic repercussions. It expands on the limited measure imposed by Reagan last September, which prohibited the purchase of Krugerrands in the U.S. and the export of computers to South Africa. Among Lugar's proposals: ending landing rights in the U.S. for South African airlines, freezing U.S. bank accounts of South African citizens, and prohibiting American imports of steel and perhaps coal. Lugar will present his measure to the Foreign Relations Committee next week.

Even some of Reagan's supporters feel he made a basic political misjudgment by jumping into the debate over sanctions with nothing new to offer at a time when something more was needed. He seemed also to misread the depth of sentiment on the issue. While just about everyone is repelled by the oppression in South Africa and thinks something should be done about it, there is no clear consensus on what. Reagan, by heightening the visibility of the subject without offering a solution, succeeded only in exposing his own policies to closer inspection and greater criticism.

Black leaders saw Reagan's do-little approach as yet another example of his lack of sensitivity on racial matters and human rights, noting that throughout his career he has been late in acknowledging black causes. "This is the time for new actions and new methods," said Jesse Jackson, "not old methods with new rhetoric."

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who is undergoing travails at home over South Africa similar to those faced by Reagan, was gratified that her American friend stood with her. Her long-standing refusal to consider sanctions, which she has termed "utterly repugnant," has infuriated her parliamentary opponents, divided the Commonwealth and distressed moderates within her Tory ranks. Last week her Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, embarked on a mission to South Africa in an attempt to find some thin reed on which to base hopes for future negotiations.

He failed. Indeed, he was humiliated. Howe, who was representing the nations of the European Community, sought to meet with both government and black opposition leaders. The rather retiring diplomat was greeted frostily by the former and shunned by the latter. In his round of talks with President P.W. Botha, Howe was bluntly informed that South Africans, not uitlanders (a derogatory term for outsiders), would deal with the country's problems. South African officials lectured Howe on the extent of suffering that sanctions could inflict on surrounding black states.

The black opposition leaders treated Howe as if he were a despised enemy. Nelson Mandela refused to see him, as did Mandela's wife Winnie. She dismissed the Foreign Minister as "that clown." Bishop Tutu rejected a meeting with Howe as "a waste of time." The United Democratic Front, the major umbrella organization for antiapartheid groups, declared Howe persona non grata and forbade any representative of the U.D.F. to see him.

Howe's rebuffs did not end when he left South Africa. Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda agreed to meet with him in Lusaka, and then delivered a public dressing down. Kaunda, regarded as a moderate African leader, accused Britain and the U.S. of being in a "kind of conspiracy" to preserve apartheid, and admonished the British emissary, "Sir Geoffrey, you people will not be forgiven by history, because South Africa is about to explode. And that you should encourage it to me is incomprehensible."

Howe will report back to other European Community Foreign Ministers sometime in the next few months. They will then consider the question of a joint policy on sanctions; a decision is expected by the end of September. The possibility of unified action with the allies would allow Reagan, and perhaps Thatcher, to modify past opposition to sanctions.

One document the European nations will rely on is the report of the Eminent ( Persons Group, a committee that does in fact consist of prominent Commonwealth figures. Some of the group's members recommend sanctions as the only way to promote change in South Africa, a course that was rejected last month by Thatcher. The co-chairman of the group, Malcolm Fraser, a former Prime Minister of Australia, attacked Reagan in a Washington Post article last week. "If the United States and the United Kingdom persist in policies that have patently failed over the past five or six years, the black South Africans will take irreversible decisions to fight for political participation and freedom," he wrote. "The emerging government would be pro-Soviet and anti- West."

One place where the President's speech was well received was white South Africa. Foreign Minister Botha welcomed what he termed Reagan's conviction that it was impossible to negotiate with Marxist terrorists and the President's exposition on the suffering that sanctions would cause black Africa. Although Botha criticized a few things, it was a matter of praising with faint damns. "It is regrettable," he noted, "that President Reagan condemned the measures taken by the South African government to protect black citizens against violence and intimidation."

Reagan, by putting the issue of sanctions at center stage, may have handed the Democrats an emotional issue for the fall. While polls show that the sanctions question does not concern a large number of voters, the topic rouses strong support among activists who consider forceful opposition to South African apartheid a moral imperative.

Another political consequence of Reagan's speech is that it helped inflame the public rhetoric he sought to dampen. Although virtually no one supports the current system in South Africa, it could be dangerous if American foreign policy is once again driven by a moral rampage against an unpopular pro- Western state. The long-term interests of both the U.S. and South Africans, black and white, will require a tortuous and careful sorting out of extremely complex factors rather than a headlong rush toward confrontation.

The Administration also faces strategic questions about its current course. Reagan is right in asserting that South Africa plays an important role in the global balance; it would be a consider- able blow to the West if the government were replaced by one aligned with Moscow. Yet the current system in Pretoria is inevitably going to be replaced, perhaps in five years, perhaps in . 25, as even all but the most adamant whites in South Africa admit. That is why Tutu's outburst that the West "can go to hell" is so chilling, and that is one reason speeches that please Pretoria's whites and enrage Soweto's blacks are misguided.

As with the Philippines and Haiti, the Administration is fast approaching the time when it will have to make a decision: Is it prudent any longer to stick by an old and often loyal regime, or is it time to support the forces that will replace it? If, as Reagan says, a new society is destined to be born in South Africa, the U.S. seems to be on the side of the ancien regime. The time may soon slip away, if it has not already, when a Desmond Tutu or an Oliver Tambo will consider the U.S. a potential ally. The Administration is understandably troubled that some members of the African National Congress are Communists, but to alienate those who are not is to risk enlarging the Communist ranks.

Finally, Reagan's approach raises some real moral concerns, even if these can be clouded by the demagoguery or naivete of some who have adopted the cause. Sanctions may not be effective. They can even be counterproductive. Yet there may come a point when a political system is so abhorrent that other nations must proclaim simply and clearly that they will treat it as an outcast. That rationale, more than any hope of modifying his behavior, was the President's most compelling justification for sanctions against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

The danger in advocating a moralist stance against South Africa is that it can slight the very real complexities of the situation. As Shultz has pointed out, the transition to majority rule must be accompanied by guarantees of the rights of minority groups, namely the whites. Yet continued U.S. reluctance to take a moral stance against the Pretoria government, one that is backed by tangible actions rather than righteous rhetoric, prompts some fundamental questions: If not now, when? If not sanctions, what?

Reagan and Shultz are concerned, and rightly so, about finding the best way to achieve a transition to a postapartheid leadership in South Africa and how that will affect southern Africa as a whole. As Shultz points out, the economy of South Africa, the largest and healthiest on the continent, may collapse if it is put under sustained pressure by the West. That would have catastrophic consequences for not only the whites but also the blacks of South Africa and the entire region.

The Administration's goal is to find measures that will selectively increase pressure on Pretoria. In his testimony last week, Shultz attempted to make a distinction between "punitive" sanctions, which would perhaps worsen the situation for all South Africans, and "other measures," which could be targeted at the ruling whites in a position to bring about change. The distinction is a somewhat tortured one: What is the point, after all, of sanctions that are not punitive? The real purpose of the semantic difference may be to allow the Administration to impose sanctions under a slightly more benign name.

The vehemence of the reaction to the standstill policies contained in Reagan's speech caused some hasty attempts by Administration officials to emphasize that they are still considering ways of toughening their South African policy. As Reagan hopped through the South on a series of political fund-raising appearances, his advisers huddled in conferences in the middle cabin of Air Force One, searching for ways to placate critics and find some middle ground for the President. Presidential Spokesman Larry Speakes told reporters that everything was "under review."

Speakes suggested that one example of "nonpunitive" sanctions would be the closing of consular services, which is currently included in the bill that Lugar is drafting. The Administration hopes to work with Lugar in refining other possible measures with the aim of putting together a package acceptable to both Capitol Hill and the White House. Since it is al- most certain that Congress will pass some sanctions bill by the end of the summer, the only other option the President has is his veto. That would make last week's political brouhaha seem like a picnic by comparison.

In addition, the White House is hoping to defuse the issue with the same gesture it had originally intended to make as part of the President's speech: the appointment of a black Ambassador to Pretoria. One contender is Terence Todman, a career Foreign Service officer with high credentials who is now Ambassador to Denmark; another is Edward J. Perkins, the current U.S. Ambassador to Liberia. The clumsy stumble over the planned appointment of Robert Brown has taken away some of the impact that would come from such a choice and make it even more transparently symbolic. But it will be a signal nevertheless.

Having insisted on making a bravura entrance into the South African debate, * Reagan seemed anxious to tiptoe away from it all during his swing through the South last week. For the most part, he deflected or ignored questions hurled at him whenever he was in earshot of reporters. When given the chance, he seemed to set the stage for a shift in policy in the wake of the reaction he had provoked. When a reporter shouted a query in Columbia, S.C., about whether new sanctions were out of the question, the President stopped to answer. "We haven't closed any doors yet," he said.