Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Constructive engagement, then and now

Tonight’s All In with Chris Hayes (I’ll post the video when it’s available)

Updated - here's the video:

featured a report on the grotesquely deferential trip made by Barack and Michelle Obama and a twenty-hypocrite contingent from the US to honor the dead Saudi Arabian king. Hayes showed video of Michelle Obama, in reportedly a planned gesture, stepping back to allow her husband to walk in front of her and greet the new king [!] and his delegation first. It also shows them in a sort of receiving line where, in another planned move, Michelle Obama waited for each Saudi Arabian man to make a move to shake her hand first rather than reaching out her hand (too aggressively!) and expecting all of them to shake it as they had her husband’s. Several of the men passed by without shaking her hand.

Imagine, just imagine, if the US government had requested that some of its representatives defer to similar attitudes about black people, expecting them to walk behind white people and to accept that white people might not wish to shake their hands. All of this,* including the transparent rationalizations for obsequiousness toward this oppressive regime - a slap in the face to the women, LGBT people,…, and democratic activists in the country – reminds me of Reagan’s policy of so-called “constructive engagement” toward apartheid South Africa.

An informational 2011 interview with US foreign policy historian David Schmitz concludes with this exchange:
Would you argue that Reagan’s foreign policy extended the life of the regime in South Africa?

Yes. It gave it life. It gave it hope that the United States would continue to stick with it. It gave it continued flow of aid as well as ideological support. It delayed the changes that were going to come. Then you had the big crackdowns in ’86 and ’87. So there was harm in the lengthening. There was harm in the violence that continued.

I think a lot of well-meaning people in the United States bought the Sullivan principles and constructive engagement, because it seems reasonable. Reagan would say, “If we’re willing to talk to the Russians, why aren’t we willing to talk to the South African government?” We’re going to encourage them to moderate and reform — it sounds reasonable. But there was no real pressure. It was all talk. And it was exposed as that.
This is especially relevant given that Obama has argued that it was his opposition to this very policy that drew him into politics. Speaking to students at the University of Cape Town in 2013, Noah Rothman reported,
Obama told the South African students that, when he was a teenager, he was moved to abandon cynicism and engage in the political process in order to oppose his university’s and the American government’s support for the Apartheid South African government.
I wonder how it feels to return to that youthful cynicism.

* Hayes also reported on the Department of Defense plan to establish an essay contest in honor of Abdullah at the National Defense University. Yes, you read that right.

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