By now, we all know the story. Iran’s leaders released statistically suspicious results to the latest presidential election and as a result the streets exploded in protest. The Iranian leadership had two options: Back down and hold new elections that would probably be won by the man they tried to stop, or assert their authority and probably kill a lot of people. They chose the latter. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared the results were a “divine assessment” and said they were final. In a great display of twisted logic, Khamenei asserted that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s large margin of victory was proof that the election was not rigged.
By drawing this line in the sand, Khamenei was casting the protesters not simply as the losing party, but as enemies of God himself. As a result, the situation escalated. Iran erupted in an explosion of pent-up rage against the regime. Protesters rioted in and clashed with government paramilitaries. People were gunned down in the streets. The death toll is still unclear, with numbers running between 19 and 150. A few days before, the cries in the streets were asking “where is my vote?” Last weekend, they were screaming “Death to Khamenei!”
The Iranian regime appeared weak, but predictions of an overthrow were premature. Protesters getting shot in the streets is nothing new in the Middle East. Power in the Middle Easts resides with the gun. Since the Supreme Leader was refusing to budge, the only way the protesters were going to get their way was if the military took their side. For a while, it was possible that this could happen. Rumors were flying that some Army officers were refusing orders to suppress the demonstrations. By relying on loyalist paramilitaries to suppress the protesters, Khameni bypassed a possible showdown with the military, which remained on the sidelines. Some protests continue, but they are not on the scale of hundreds of thousands that were seen last week. At the same time, the response by the authorities has gotten more and more violent.
Khamenei and Ahmadinejad’s grip on power seems secure, for now. But Iran will never be the same. As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, the Supreme Leaders of Iran have always claimed divine sanction for their actions. Now, the people of Iran view these actions as wrong and Khamenei’s proclamations of divine guidance as false. The regime’s pillar of legitimacy – that the Supreme Leader has a special pipeline to the Almighty – is gone.
Historically, when a regime loses its ideological basis, its response is to govern by the gun, relying on fear alone to enforce obedience. Thus, the Iranian regime will likely move to destroy the last vestiges of Iranian democracy and replace Iran’s authoritarian regime with a totalitarian one.
This is already happening. Opposition leaders have been arrested, including family members of leading Guardian Council figures such as Ali Rafsanjani. Hundreds of others have been arrested. Four Iranian soccer players that wore green armbands in protest of the election received lifetime bans from Iranian soccer. Those who have been arrested will be tried before a special court created especially to make an example of them. The court is run by prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, a brutal regime apparatchik who in 2003 was involved in beating, torturing, raping and murdering Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi while she was in custody.
However, the clearest hallmark of Iran’s emerging status as a totalitarian state is the way the regime is beginning to take on an Orwellian sense of truth. George Orwell’s classic depiction of totalitarianism, 1984, describes a government which simply asserts whatever it wants to be true, and expects the people to believe it. The Iranian government started down this road when they declared Ahmadinejad the landslide winner two hours after the polls closed. The foreign minister has claimed that the protests were orchestrated by British intelligence agents who flew into the country in several planeloads prior to the election. A government ‘investigation’ has tried to justify the killing of protester Neda Agha-Soltan by saying that the paramilitary sniper that shot her in cold blood “had mistaken her for the sister” of a deceased Iranian Marxist terrorist leader from the group Mujahedin-e-khalq.
Of course, the idea that a country can count tens of millions of paper ballots in 2 hours, or that planeloads of MI6 agents could suddenly fly into Iraq and organize mass protests, or that Iranian snipers were specifically looking out for siblings of long-dead members of now-defunct terrorist organizations in the huge crowds that engulfed Tehran, are all patently ridiculous, and Iranians know it. But these claims are asserted to be true in a totalitarian state because the state forces people to believe them. Everyone knows the truth, but anyone who speaks it gets killed.
Iran’s transformation into a totalitarian police state should throw a wrench into Obama’s plans to engage the Iranian government in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Obama’s strategy was contingent on recognizing the Iranian regime’s legitimacy as an elected institution. With that legitimacy gone, Obama could abandon negotiations and strongly oppose the new government. Or, he could pretend that nothing has happened and and continue negotiations with a totalitarian regime, thereby legitimizing it. The trouble is, as attempted negotiations with North Korea have shown, negotiating with a totalitarian regime is impossible, because a regime which is used to asserting whatever it wants to be true as truth cannot be a trusted partner in negotiations.
While Obama’s approach might have worked prior to June 12th, it will not work afterwards. Iran has been changed forever, and Iran’s relationship with American cannot help but also be changed. Obama has a choice between taking a stand for what’s right, or legitimizing a regime of tyrants and killers. Will he make the right choice? And will the American people let him get away with it if he doesn’t?
28 thoughts on “Iran”
What a fantastic summary with an appropriately menacing, agonizingly ominous end.
Justin is right, the end is ominous. Will Obama do the right thing, which is, at the very least, to unequivocally condemn the suppression of basic human rights occurring in Iran? You put the point well when you say:
“Obama has a choice between taking a stand for what’s right, or legitimizing a regime of tyrants and killers. Will he make the right choice? And will the American people let him get away with it if he doesn’t?”
It brings up an interesting comparison that I would like you to comment on, which was Reagan’s similarly lame and totally immoral response to the anti-apartheid and divestment movements in South Africa during the 1980’s. As you well remember, the right-wing Nationalist government in South Africa discriminated against and violated the basic human rights of millions of black and Indian South Africans under the shoddy pretense of preventing the spread of communism and preserving white Afrikaner culture. The right-wing Nationalists did things far worse to people of color in South Africa than the Iranians are doing to their own people, and for far longer, and yet at the height of the divestment movement Reagan acted like he couldn’t care less. (And speaking of Orwell and totalitarianism, he has some interesting and explicit things to say about South Africa in “1984.”)
So, the comparison is clear. If Obama’s current approach to the Iranian crisis is “legitimizing a regime of tyrants and killers,” then what terrible things could one say about Reagan’s policy on South Africa? And why did the freedom-loving Americans that voted for Reagan let him get away with such a short-sighted and nasty foreign policy that undermined freedom abroad? In short, do you hold Reagan to the same standard?
Well Jonathan, thanks for that comment because you’ve made me realize that I made a mistake in the last 2 paragraphs. I meant for my article to end with a commentary about how negotiating with the new Iran while pretending it is the same as the old Iran is not going to be productive or in America’s national interest. Instead, at the end I ended up making a more broad statement about the morality of negotiating with totalitarian regimes.
However, it’s a mistake in my reasoning and not a factual error or typo so I won’t go back and change it now. So I’ll comment on the moral dilemma you raised.
The first point that I want to establish is that there were no clean hands in the Bush Wars of southern Africa in the 1970s and 80s. Not the Apartheid regime, not the ANC, not the UDI regime in Rhodesia, not Mugabe’s ZANU or Nkomo’s ZAPU, nor FRELIMO, nor RENAMO, nor UNITA, nor the MPLA, or the Cubans, or the foreign mercenaries, or the FNLA, or Zaire, or SWAPO. All sides had one goal: Their own self-interest, which they pursued with extreme ruthlessness.
The second is that you cannot separate US support for South Africa from the conflicts that were engulfing the region, and the larger Cold War struggle.
Generally, when this sort of vicious cycle of a conflict is going on in the world I would argue that the United States should serve the role of mediating a peace solution between the parties rather than intervening on the behalf of one side or another.
However, in the case of southern Africa in this time frame (unlike Iran today), the conflicts were part of the ongoing Cold War conflict. The Soviet Union and China were actively supporting FRELIMO, SWAPO, ZANU, the MPLA etc. So, in the larger, global strategic view, Soviet and Chinese attempts to control southern Africa were something that had to be stopped for the larger good of the world. Unfortunately, this meant aligning with some unsavory characters like P.W. Botha. I’d say the situation was roughly analogous to the US and UK allying with Stalin during World War 2, in order to defeat the more immediately dangerous threat of Hitler. Few people question that that was the right thing to do, difficult as it was. I’m not going to say that it was a good thing, just that it was a necessary thing.
However, this situational support should not be unconditional. The US should have leaned strongly on the South Africans to change their political system. Reagan didn’t do that, and that was wrong.
I realize this may seem as a very nuanced opinion, and it is. However, in international politics even more so than domestic politics, you usually can’t get what you want. I’m sure everyone in the US would have preferred to be aligned with a South Africa with full democracy and equal rights for everyone, but that’s not the South Africa we had and we had few other options.
I’m glad you can recognize Reagan’s serious moral mistake. That’s a mark of a consistent approach that conservatives don’t often take with Reagan, and a good thing it is.
Some of the other points you make need a bit more discussion though. While I appreciate the nuance of your approach to the wider conflict in southern Africa, I have to point out that it’s unnecessary. The broader Bush Wars contained, but did not by any means define the struggle of the ANC and the South African Communist Party against the Nationalist government. Mandela and Joe Slovo may have gotten help from the Soviets, but they were not Soviet agents operating on the behalf of the USSR. They were freedom fighters struggling for a non-racial democracy and civil rights in South Africa. Their struggle was contained, and Mandela consistently made the point of focusing the ANC’s political objectives on South Africa, even if the ANC was a member of the Socialist International, and even if it had to operate its military wing out of other countries. They never had any intention of being Soviet stooges, and they made this clear in all their documents from the time-period. Perhaps the Soviets had a chance of controlling other countries in the Bush Wars, but it was never a threat in South Africa, and the Nationalists used the excuse of anti-communism to persecute anti-apartheid activities long before the USSR was even in the picture. To say, then, that we had to support the Nationalists to keep out the Soviets, is a very tenuous argument.
Also, to say that it was necessary to support a lesser of two evils in South Africa, and that therefore we had to support Botha and the Nationalists over Mandela, is totally refuted by the political situation in SA after the fall of apartheid. The ANC has been the head of a ruling political coalition (which also includes, significantly, the largest socialist and communist parties in South Africa as well) since Mandela was freed and the Nationalists were kicked out of office, and South Africa is still a democracy that protects basic human rights far more than the apartheid governments ever did. In short, next to Botha & Co., Mandela and Slovo look like saints. (And speaking of the lesser of two evils, don’t forget that the Nationalist party, operating under the same ideology that Reagan protected in the 80’s, also explicitly supported Hitler in World War II. That should have clearly indicated that the political sympathies of the racist right-wing Afrikaners was the greater evil in the equation.)
I have no intention of defending Mugabe, or the Soviet and Cuban interventions in Africa (though those two are a little easier to forgive than Reagan’s stance). These things were not the ANC. Yes, the ANC is a socialist political party, but they are also the true party of democracy in South Africa, as they were all through the end of the 20th century. Reagan could prattle all he wanted to about the Evil Empire, but in South Africa he support the party of totalitarian racism and oppression, and I am personally of the conviction that he knew exactly what he was doing.
I am just thrilled that Jonathan Patishall is commenting on CRdaily! And, I want it on the record that Patishall agrees with me on something! Oh, and am I missing something or was South Africa ever a nuclear/ military/terrorist threat to the world and most especially Israel? I think that point adds a little something to Obama’s need to have an un-wishy-washy stance.
“That’s a mark of a consistent approach that conservatives don’t often take with Reagan, and a good thing it is.”
I think that all conservatives I know would have asked Reagan to take a very hard-line stance on defeating the immoral injustice of apartheid. What makes you think otherwise?
Obama also has to make it look like he’s not some sort of foreign power meddling in local problems, because otherwise Ahmadinejad could try to paint the United States as foreign meddlers. Any particularly strong response, like those had been urged by others, is inadvisable.
Ahmadinnerjacket has already done that anyway.
The subjunctive tense you use leads me to think you are speaking in the past tense; conservatives you know would have asked Reagan to take a stronger stance back in the day. If this is what you’re saying, then I do think differently. What gives me this impression is the fact that the anti-apartheid movement was a calling card of the left, and not the right during the Eighties, just as the American civil rights movement had been a calling card of the left, and not the right, twenty to thirty years before) If conservatives at the time had wanted Reagan to take a different stance, they would have told their party to do that. And yet almost all significant criticism of Reagan’s stance came from the left and the Democratic party. I think that most ideological conservatives at the time stood somewhere closer to the position of the late Jesse Helms, hell-bound bastard that he was, who opposed pressuring South Africa for fear of seeming soft on communism. I’m curious as to what makes you think any different.
Jonathan, hindsight is 20/20. Now, we know that the ANC is a democratic party. However, in 1982 this wasn’t so clear. The ANC’s militant actions in that period did very little to differentiate them from ZANU, SWAPO, FRELIMO and all the other Soviet and Chinese backed guerrilla organizations. Many groups had appeared in Africa pledging democracy and national liberation, only to create brutal dictatorships when they gained power. As a prime example of this, I give you Robert Mugabe and ZANU.
“just as the American civil rights movement had been a calling card of the left, and not the right, twenty to thirty years before”
Not really… it took some serious pushing for Democrats, who were the political voice of the left, to sign on to the idea of civil rights for blacks. Now, you can find many voices on the left and right from that time who opposed civil rights. But the political voice of the right, the Republican party, supported civil rights to a much greater extent than the Democrats did.
One famous Republican vote against (unusual, since most voted for) the 1964 bill was Barry Goldwater, who had voted for previous versions of the bill but thought that one of the sections was problematic. Goldwater was hardly a southern Democratic segregationist… he spearheaded the integration of the Phoenix public school system and the Arizona National Guard, for example.
And one Democratic exception was JFK. I wish that more Democrats had signed on, and that so many Democrats had not opposed civil rights.
The calling cards of the left back then were redistribution of wealth and state-run schools, business, and other unproductive ideas. For all practical purposes, Republicans passed civil rights legislation. Then Democrats, and the left, got all tied up in positivism as a means to achieving their other ‘calling cards.’ So now the left say that the right oppose ‘rights’ whenever the right disagree with the left. It’s quite a mess.
It actually was pretty clear in 1982 that the ANC was an infinitely more democratic movement than the ideology represented by the Nationalist Party. There was plenty of proof of the ANC’s Cold War non-alignment in their refusal to merge with the South African Communist Party over the many decades of apartheid, even though the SA Communists had been some of their most consistent allies in the struggle against discrimination. I would argue that it had been clear for years and years that Mandela had intentions that were infinitely more honorable than the Nationalists. Look at the painstaking deliberation with which the ANC debated, rejected, re-debated, and finally accepted, with a mature sense of historical and moral responsibility, the use of violence against the South African state. The Nationalists never would have done such a thing, and neither would a bunch of ideological-revolutionary Soviet dupes. The ANC was always a potluck coalition that avoided ideological homogenization , and this was always transparent in their public statements and membership. The Nationalists, on the other hand, had clearly always been a bunch of racist bigots and fascist-sympathizers. Hindsight is certainly 20/20, and I don’t expect all politicians to make decisions that are absolved by history all the time, but the South African case isn’t one where such considerations are so necessary. Maybe Mugabe turned out to be a lunatic, but Mugabe is not Mandela, and it is a sign of the utter short-sightedness of our Cold War foreign policy that such justifications are necessary to explain away the fact that Reagan shielded a group of quasi-fascists for so long. You insist on being politically realistic, which is fine, but I don’t see any reason why political realism would require one to support the Nationalists over Mandela.
I’m more than aware of the nuances inherent in the discussion of civil rights in American history, and I think you have misinterpreted my use of the terms “left” and “right.” When I say that “almost all significant criticism of Reagan’s stance came from the left and the Democratic party,” I am making a conscious attempt to distinguish between the intelligentsia of one end of the political spectrum and the political party that might or might not roughly approximate their ideology. Notice I didn’t say that “the left, which is embodied in the Democratic Party,” criticized Reagan. Similarly, I used the term “ideological conservatives,” rather than “Republicans,” when discussing Jesse Helms’s stance. I did this because I doubt most Republicans felt the way Helms did. I do, however, think that most ideological conservatives, who I consider to be rightists (I could also have used the term “reactionary”), did. So when I say that the civil rights movement was a calling card of the American Left, I’m not talking about the Democratic Party. If I had been talking about the Democratic Party, I would have used the term “Democratic Party.” Rather, when I talk about the American Left, I mean groups and individuals like the NAACP, the Communist Party USA, major socialist trade-unions like the IWW, Pete Seeger, A. Philip Randolph, etc. And in this regard, my statement is totally correct. Civil rights was a calling card of the American Left, and not the American Right.
This is all parenthetical however. You asked what made me think that most conservatives wouldn’t have wanted Reagan to act differently regarding South Africa, and I explained it. The anti-apartheid movement was a calling card of the Left. If the Right had actually wanted something done about it, they would have make a stink about it like the Left did. But they didn’t do that. You very noticeably did not rebut that statement, and it’s a good thing you didn’t try. It can’t be done.
Those nuances include the fact that the political voice of the left was opposed to racial equality for over a hundred years.
I merely said that the conservatives I know would have, in hindsight (which, as Chris noted, is 20/20), wanted Reagan to take a tougher stance. I’ll add that all of us at CR would have wanted him to take the toughest stance possible, though it takes some study to understand what that would have been given the information available to the administration at the time. Nowhere did I defend illiberal stances on civil rights or equality that members of the intellectual right held in the 50’s and 60’s.
At the time, leftist organization held illiberal stances on everything except personal freedoms, and that hasn’t changed much since then. So I see inconsistency from the left, whose members clung (and still cling) to illberal economic doctrines centered around state control, and from the old right, some of whose top intellectuals at the time clung to the old system of suppression of the personal freedoms of various groups of their fellow citizens.
“Those nuances include the fact that the political voice of the left was opposed to racial equality for over a hundred years.”
Only if you look at the Left as the Democratic Party, which is a foolish thing to do. If, on the other hand, you consider the Left as I have defined it (the organizations and individuals who form the political intelligentsia of the modern left wing, such as the ones I named, rather than the politicians of the Democratic Party), then its clear that the American Left has been the consistent voice of civil rights, in America and in South Africa, that the Right never was. Look up the history of those people and groups, and you’ll see that that’s clear.
I’m sure you see inconsistency in the Left. That’s ok. I see inconsistency in the Right. Like the fact that Reagan could call the Soviet Union the evil empire at the same time that he vetoed Congress’s attempt to place serious trade sanctions on South African quasi-fascists and racist totalitarians. To put this unequivocally, and in a way that you cannot talk around, Reagan shielded quasi-fascists and racist totalitarians. Talk about inconsistency.
And, once again, I must point out the fact that you haven’t contradicted my statement about the anti-apartheid movement being a calling card of the American Left. If conservatives had the courage of their conviction in the 80’s, why didn’t they pressure Reagan to take “the toughest stance possible?” It’s very convenient for the CR staff to say, “well, yeah, we would have liked Reagan to do certain things,” while all the conservative intellectuals and politicians that the CR staff still looks up to were moral cowards and short-sighted opportunists.
“And yet almost all significant criticism of Reagan’s stance came from the left and the Democratic party. I think that most ideological conservatives at the time stood somewhere closer to the position of the late Jesse Helms, hell-bound bastard that he was, who opposed pressuring South Africa for fear of seeming soft on communism.” That was my initial comment about Helms, and any discussion of him was in reference to that. I said absolutely nothing about Helms in relation to civil rights in America. I don’t have any clue where your confusion comes from.
And just out of curiosity, why can’t someone be an ideological conservative? What definition of ideology are you using?
Your claim that Reagan was “shielding” white supremacist oppressors is so false that it deserves no response. But I suppose I will respond anyways. Ugh.
Reagan’s veto was a liberal economic move, made on the grounds that sanctions, under those particular circumstances, could have strengthened the apartheid regime.
Whether trading with a country will strengthen or destabilize the regime depends on the regime and the surrounding circumstances. You know that.
Sure, Reagan made the case that sanctions would hurt poor blacks in South Africa. (As to the other claim, about sanctions actually strengthening apartheid, I’ve never heard that one and would like to know where it came from. Articles or direct quotes would be appreciated.) It was a transparently preposterous argument, though. Black South Africans understood far better than Reagan what actions would increase their well-being in the long run, and they all demanded economic sanctions against the Nationalists. That includes Mandela and the ANC. If the ANC demands sanctions, Reagan can’t claim to be helping the ANC by vetoing sanctions. How stupid does one have to be to fall for such an argument? If you’ll buy that, you might also be tempted to believe that it’s raining when Reagan pisses on your head.
Here’s a good article in the Times from October, 1986. (http://www.nytimes.com/1986/10/03/politics/03REAG.html) Much of the CR staff will probably dismiss it because it’s the Times, but there are some revealing quotes in there from Helms, as well as some justifications from the Reagan administration that suggest why they actually opposed sanctions.
Just out of curiosity Dexter, why would anyone suppose that trading with the US would weaken the Nationalists where sanctions would strengthen them? Please be specific. No more hiding behind generalities.
“[Helms] was completely supportive of the civil rights movement” — except when he was calling its leaders Communists and sex perverts? I suppose you could parse out some scenario where Helms supported some abstract ideal of civil rights, yet opposed the people and organizations who were actually fighting for civil rights at the time. Even the execrable David Broder was able to set aside his fetish for bipartisanship and call Helms what he was, a racist.
Additionally, your construction of Republican = right and Democrat = left just doesn’t hold up when looking at pre-1964 civil rights politics. The earliest civil rights organizers were leftists and yes, Communists who had little support from either political party. Conservatives in both parties supported white supremacy and opposed civil rights for most of the 20th century.
A cost-benefit analysis of sorts, high on detail and low on bias.
“If the ANC demands sanctions, Reagan can’t claim to be helping the ANC by vetoing sanctions. How stupid does one have to be to fall for such an argument?”
Your argument is fallacious. By that logic, if John Doe demands an assault rifle, Obama can’t claim to be helping John (or society) by denying John Doe access to an assault rifle. If you make a point about the ANC that is relevant in the context of achieving the destruction of the apartheid system, I will respond.
From the NY times article: “The legislation will ban all new investment by Americans in South African businesses; prohibit the importation of such products as steel and coal from South Africa, and will cancel landing rights in the United States for South African airlines.”
How is that going to help poor blacks? It’s not, of course. The theory behind sanctions is that you starve the country, especially the poor blacks, in order to have those people exert revolutionary pressure. Not nice at all! I assure you that in a reasonably modern totalitarian country under sanctions from major powers, the ruling class does just fine, and the lower classes do not.
Just out of curiosity and a desire to add some vigor to what has been a rather superficial debate, do you support or oppose sanctions against the Iranian regime?
“as well as some justifications from the Reagan administration that suggest why they actually opposed sanctions.”
In that article, there is only one quote from the Reagan administration. The President stated that the he opposed sanctions because they would hurt poor blacks. Please specify these justifications.
Clearly, the goal on all sides from most high-level politicians was to achieve a free and peaceful South Africa with full equality for blacks, and the question was how to do it. Your claims/implications that Reagan harbored virulent racist feelings and/or wanted to support a white supremacist regime is revisionist nonsense.
Re: asterik guy: We are CR do not defend paleoconservative ideas. You’d know quite well, if you’d read our mission statement, that we espouse liberal ideals.
Of course most community agitators are leftists. But the people who first pushed through meaningful, non-positivist civil rights legislation were rather right-leaning Republicans and moderate Democrats.
A few points before I address the Cato article.
Let’s not be silly in our discussions of logic. If my logic is fallacious, then surely your analogy is a wild and unfair extrapolation. The main thrust of my argument there was that the ANC knew the nature of their struggle against the Nationalists better than Reagan did, so Reagan’s flat denial of their request for sanctions was almost certainly not in the anti-apartheid movement’s best interests. It was an uncompleted thought, but mostly because it completed itself. Here, then, is the extremely relevant comment about the ANC in regards to ending apartheid that you’re looking for. For decades and decades the US did not impose trade sanctions against South Africa. As the ANC escalated their violent campaign against apartheid, the US eventually approved trade sanctions in ’86, and within a handful of years apartheid was history. The article you provide states the unhelpfully obvious fact that correlation does not imply causation in this regard, but does try to suggest, at least anywhere that I can find, that continued trade with South Africa would end apartheid faster than divestment and sanctions. Therefore, I have no reason to believe that Reagan knew what would end apartheid faster than Mandela, but do, in fact, have a great deal of reasons to believe that Mandela knew what would end apartheid faster than Reagan. (Feel free to ask me for these if you’re curious.)
As for why sanctions would hurt the white South African ruling classes more than they would hurt poor black South Africans, I would suggest that if you’re already extremely poor, then you don’t have a lot to lose from national loss of capital (more of this with support from your Cato article later), but if you’re a rich capitalist then you have quite a deal to lose from loss of capital. This is why Henri de Villers, chairman of the Standard Bank Investment Corp., a capitalist if there ever was one, said “South Africa needs the world. It needs markets, it needs skills, it needs technology and above all it needs capital.”
As for the Times article, you’re right, there were no revealing quotes from the Reagan administration on why they actually opposed the sanctions bill. That’s my mistake. There were, however, quotes and opinions from Republican congressional opponents of the veto, who were allies of the administration, that were revealing. I’m sure you read those and don’t need me to repeat them.
Finally, I never claimed or implied here that Reagan was a virulent racist or a supporter of quasi-fascist totalitarianism. I made the readily verifiable claim that he shielded a regime of virulent racists and quasi-fascist totalitarians from economic sanctions that they clearly did not want. (This last bit is evidenced, for example, by Botha’s relief at the election of Bush in ’88, and the diminished possibilities of further sanctions.) If you saw an implication in those claims, beyond their mere factual signification, then you’re imagining things.
As for the Cato article, thanks for it. It was an interesting read and made some decent points. It also had some problems, though.
First, the author claims: “In cases in which policymakers’ objective is to punish or cause economic hardship, the perceived effectiveness of sanctions depends on a judgment about how much economic inconvenience resulted, bearing in mind that such inconvenience is difficult to measure and that some nations have higher thresholds for economic pain than others. For example, in the Soviet Union, where coping with queues and economic inefficiencies is a national pastime and where the government imposes policies on the populace, economic hardship does not translate to the political pressures that could be expected in a western country faced with similar hardships.”
The very nature of apartheid meant that black South Africans were a nation within a nation, almost all of who lived in poverty and were used to hardship. By the logic of the quote above, white South Africans were the ones who stood to suffer significantly higher levels of discomfort under capital flight caused by sanctions, even if they passed on much of the cuts to the poor, because they were the ones without the higher threshold for economic pain. Therefore, also by this logic, sanctions were more likely to be effective in gaining economic leverage against white South Africans then they would be at further hurting poor black South Africans. So either the author’s argument is bunk, or your claim that sanctions would hurt poor blacks more than rich whites doesn’t hold water.
Then the author makes the point about the counter-productiveness of sanctions: “That explains why economic sanctions, regardless of the economic hardship induced, often have the counter- productive result of strengthening the resolve of the target government to maintain its objectionable policy. Despite their shattering impact on the Panamanian economy, the U.S. sanctions aimed at ousting Noriega have encouraged the unpopular leader to consolidate his control. Those sanctions have had an economic impact that is rare in the history of sanctions efforts: the Panamanian economy is closely tied to the U.S. economy (Panama uses the U.S. dollar as its currency), and the sanctions have caused the indefinite suspension of Panama’s role as the Caribbean’s most important banking center and inflicted severe damage on the economy. Yet Noriega, supported by the Panamanian military, remains in control.”
My problem with the example of Panama, which is the main one he provides, is that it isn’t consistent with the case of South Africa. The Dutch Afrikaners are the descents of European Christian civilization that clung to a traditional Western conception of morality and had a racial democracy at the time of apartheid. They had at least some face to save. They weren’t a military junta in some God-forsaken banana republic that could totally disregard the opinions of the Western world. I’d like a better example, like of sanctions against a first world government of Europeans or their descendants, that has the effect the author describes.
Next, the author claims, while discussing the unfortunate effects of sanctions against the poor, that “that is the case in South Africa where diminished U.S. business presence brings hardships and loss of economic opportunity to former black employees and other blacks who benefited from programs sponsored by those companies.” The author conspicuously fails to provide a footnote for this point, though he does for his next example, in the same paragraph, of a similar effect in Panama.
Next, he says “When Congress does legislate sanctions, as in the passage of the 1986 Anti-Apartheid Act over President Reagan’s veto, conflicting signals about U.S. policy are sent to the target country. That is particularly counterproductive if one believes that the main value of sanctions in today’s environment is as signals, which places a higher premium on actions that send clear signals.”
Now this is pretty clearly crazy. It suggests that the US would have sent a stronger signal against apartheid if it hadn’t overridden Reagan’s veto against sanctions. The veto was the initial act of conflicting signals, and the overwhelming majority which overrode the veto was a signal, not of conflicting messages, but of consensus.
Finally, despite the fact that it was an interesting article, I have to take issue with your claim that it was low on bias. This is the Cato Institute, after all. The two longest sections in the paper are on the indirect costs of sanctions to American businesses, and suggestions for the business community to make the best out of a bad situation. No wonder it’s skeptical of the use of sanctions. Its main goal doesn’t seem to be the liberation of oppressed black South Africans, but the protection of American business interests.
Corrections: “but does NOT try to suggest, at least anywhere that I can find, that continued trade with South Africa would end apartheid faster than divestment and sanctions.”
Okay. So we can go back and forth on who gets hurt by sanctions. The bottom line there, I think, is that a definite conclusion would require a quantitative analysis of the economic situation in South Africa at the time… an analysis which we cannot readily conduct without really delving into the matter. We can understand background information by, say, reading Kaffir Boy, but we will still end up making generalizations about the actual effect of sanctions on the regime.
That analysis will be confounded by the fact that both groups were hurt by sanctions. I dispute your claim that white South Africans suffered most – I hardly consider not being able to watch your countrymen play tennis in international matches, for example, to even be a form of suffering. And on economic pain, you mention a mental threshold, whereas I would want to quantify pain based on a physical threshold. Far more black families lived in slums than did white families. I would say that the ongoing poverty of black South Africans was part of a continuously painful system of repression. White South Africans who supported the ruling elite were definitely *not* so hurt by the sanctions that they suffered the greater levels of physical pain suffered by the repressed blacks.
Your argument about Botha and Bush is invalid. Of course the guy was relieved at the prospect of maybe seeing more tennis matches in the future, or of his friends making more money, or whatever the consequences. But you have to distinguish between the regime’s wants, which are rather irrelevant to the welfare of its people, and the actual welfare of its people.
“I made the readily verifiable claim that he shielded a regime of virulent racists and quasi-fascist totalitarians from economic sanctions that they clearly did not want.”
Do you think, then, that the Bush sanctions against North Korea and Iran were effective, or that they strengthened or weakened those regimes? The talk now from the left is that interference in Iranian affairs – i.e., where the US is pushing for rights – strengthens the regime. This talk is somewhat analogous to the Reagan argument against sanctions.
Past sanctions against Iraq and current sanctions against North Korea have hurt people in those countries. Neither regime fell as a result of those sanctions.
I do not know your personal position on the invasion of Iraq. But it seems that many members of the left criticize meddling in foreign affairs and promote non-intervention when right-wingers are in office (ex: Bush – Iraq), but support identical meddling when relatively left-leaning politicians are in office (ex: Clinton – Bosnia). These leftists also criticize non-intervention (South Africa, Darfur) when right-wing politicians are in office. And then these leftists criticize intervention against other repressive regimes (Cuba).
“I’d like a better example, like of sanctions against a first world government of Europeans or their descendants, that has the effect the author describes.”
I’m not sure the race of the governing class will determine the effect of sanctions. And there are not good recent examples of real sanctions against first world governments by the major powers. I don’t think anyone would count Cuba among first-world countries, but that is a geographically close example where sanctions have had the effect that the Cato author describes.
The decision over whether or not to implement sanctions comes down to a question of cost. Is it worth the murders (South Africa), the starvation (North Korea, Iraq), the continued subjugation without regard to economic consequences (Cuba), to achieve regime change? (Note that three of those four examples have had the same regime from before the beginning of Reagan’s term to today, or in the case of Iraq, until we invaded.) Or is constructive engagement a better policy? Is some extra pressure for regime change worth the significant harm to lower-class blacks in South Africa that sanctions caused? The answer is a complex economic question that varies with each situation.
Today, many blacks in South Africa are still quite poor. While apartheid is officially over, South Africa won’t achieve true equality of opportunity, I think, for a long time. I don’t know whether the government would have fallen without sanctions, but I think it would have.
To support that claim, I would like to refer you to an interesting paper, published on the Yale website, by Philip I. Levy, who is now a scholar the American Enterprise Institute (something I found out after going through the paper a bit). He taught econ at Yale and was the Senior Economist for Trade on the Council of Economic Advisers.
To save you from reading yet another piece, just read the conclusion if you like, which I have pasted below.
“It is impossible to argue conclusively that trade sanctions failed in the South
African case. Given the small economic effects of trade sanctions, an argument for their effectiveness ends up hinging on their psychological impact on the governing party. Most South African leaders claimed the impact was minimal, but one can choose not to believe them. Such issues are very difficult to resolve; the best one can do is argue that it is implausible that trade sanctions played a significant and positive role. This paper has attempted to do so by offering an alternative interpretation that seems to fit the events more closely and that offers no role for governmentally imposed sanctions. At the very least, this should cast serious doubt on the applicability of the South African case as a model for further trade sanctions.”
Mr. Levy’s view confirms my suspicious that it’s hard to tell what the sanctions actually did, and while they certainly exerted some pressure, we cannot necessarily link them with the downfall of the regime. Furthermore, the sanctions may have done long-term harm to the economic well-being of black South Africans. That is a huge cost for an indeterminately-effective, largely psychological weapon against that regime.
You cannot “readily verify” that Reagan “shielded quasi-fascist totalitarians” from their own destruction. I maintain that the only people he was trying to shield were the repressed black populace – Reagan tried to shield them from economic harm.
You’re right, we could go back and forth all day about who was harmed by trade sanctions and a million other minute details. I can’t get in every word I want to, and I’m sure you can’t either, so I’ll make a few concluding remarks and then be done.
First, you write, “And on economic pain, you mention a mental threshold, whereas I would want to quantify pain based on a physical threshold. Far more black families lived in slums than did white families. I would say that the ongoing poverty of black South Africans was part of a continuously painful system of repression. White South Africans who supported the ruling elite were definitely *not* so hurt by the sanctions that they suffered the greater levels of physical pain suffered by the repressed blacks.” I very clearly never mention a mental threshold; rather, I discussed the very same threshold of economic pain discussed by the author of the Cato article, which is primarily a physical threshold (that of poverty). The last sentence of your quote is in conflict with the passage I presented from the Cato article above. That author describes a world where those who are already down and out aren’t further hurt by sanctions (like a law of diminishing misery), while you think that the already poor black South Africans are more hurt than the rich white ones by the flight of capital and luxuries. One idea or the other must go, and I’ll let you pick.
As for your perception of inconsistency from leftists on foreign intervention, I would once again assert that I see the same things from conservatives. For every right-wing think-tank policy wonk that cheered on the invasion of Iraq in the name of democracy and freedom and human rights, how many would have taken the hard line against South Africa (by whatever means might have been best), or support intervention in Darfur right now? When I was younger I was pretty bitterly opposed to the invasion of Iraq, but I have been very impressed recently by the arguments of Hitchens and other left-internationalists in favor of it. In short, I make my considerations about foreign intervention based on what I think is right and not who’s in power. I’d hope you do the same.
Finally, I think our disagreement on South Africa boils down to one fundamental difference. You think the Reagan administration was privy to geo-political and economic knowledge that the ANC either did not have or disregarded, and which allowed them to make the best choice on South Africa to both end apartheid and protect poor South Africans; I think that Mandela and the ANC had a visceral knowledge of the struggle against apartheid that gave them a moral orientation more appropriate for South Africa, at the same time that I seriously doubt that Reagan was more concerned with helping black South Africans than he was with opposing the spread of socialism. You trust Reagan; I trust Mandela. We can’t get past this divide, so our productive conversation has probably been exhausted.
If I may, can I interject an articles? While not dealing specifically dealing with South Africa, they cover the effects of sanctions:
“In the short run, it appears that a consumer boycott is likely to hurt more local citizens than the governing classin more privative regimes. The choice of such a type of instrument is then questionable as it may miss its real target, i.e. the political power, while hurting the people it is supposed to defend. In the long run, it is likely that the population behavior is crucial. The boycott may help revolting against the people in power. Conversely, it may also increase resentment against the boycotting countries. The direction of this reaction depends on the type of dictatorship that is considered, but is not straightforward. First, local populations are more hurt in very privative dictatorships, anger against the cause of the boycott is likely to be higher. However, if the regime is very strong and privative, it is likely to be very authoritarian, with efficient propaganda, and then able to contain eventual protests from the population and turning it toward the boycotting countries.”
Jonathan: just want to respond to one thing.
“For every right-wing think-tank policy wonk that cheered on the invasion of Iraq in the name of democracy and freedom and human rights, how many would have taken the hard line against South Africa (by whatever means might have been best), or support intervention in Darfur right now?”
This 1985 article from Heritage (written by Stuart M. Butler, who is now VP for Domestic and Economic policy studies) promoted a serious constructive engagement policy designed to strengthen black business and unions – tactics which Heritage notes had been more effective than sanctions at increasing the black voice in South Africa’s political structure.
In this 2004 article, Heritage calls for sanctions and AU military intervention in the Sudan genocide. It warns against sending already thinly-stretched U.S. troops to become involved in what would soon become yet another deadly counterinsurgency operation. It calls for direct “diplomatic, logistical and financial support” to African Union military forces. That is quite a hard line, considering the commitments of our own military forces elsewhere in the world today.
As to your last two sentences: I concur.
Jonathan, there’s another thing I would like to add going back earlier in this thread. You said that “While I appreciate the nuance of your approach to the wider conflict in southern Africa, I have to point out that it’s unnecessary. The broader Bush Wars contained, but did not by any means define the struggle of the ANC and the South African Communist Party against the Nationalist government” and that the bush wars in Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique were separate from the ANC’s war against the Apartheid government.
While it is true that they were separate conflicts, from a U.S. perspective South Africa was most important as a bulwark not against the ANC but against SWAPO, FRELIMO, the MPLA and their Soviet and Cuban allies. Apartheid South Africa was the prime supporter of movements like UNITA and RENAMO that the US wanted to be supported in their grand geopolitical struggle against the USSR. I doubt the ANC would have been as committed to fighting the MPLA/Cubans, SWAPO or FRELIMO as the Apartheid government was, and I’ll bet this was an important consideration in Reagan’s mind.
Chris, I will respond to this comment along side some comments in your Honduras article.
Also, this is very late, but better late than never. I want to point out that * hit the nail on the head with his characterization of Jesse Helms and the makeup of the early and consistent supporters of civil rights for black Americans in the 20th-century.
Helms was, at his core, a nasty and virulent racist.