A South African Hero

It was interesting being in Kenya this past week while the World Cup football (soccer) matches were being played near-by in South Africa. When Kenyan’s interrupted their viewing of a match to converse with me and learned that I was an American they inevitably wanted to know how I thought President Obama was doing. I hated telling them. The current World Cup in South Africa, however, made viewing Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” on the plane on the way home even more moving than it would have been anyway. The movie dramatizes South Africa’s first post apartheid President, Nelson Mandela’s, decision to save and embrace South Africa’s national soccer team, “Springboks,” so loved by white South African’s and thus hated by black South Africans, as an element of his program of national reconciliation.The wisdom, courage, and compassion of leaders like Mandela, Gandhi, Martin Luther King overwhelm me. These leaders placed the well being of their people, their countries, and mankind more generally above narrower concerns for justice or revenge. They looked forward not backward. Mandela understood that his fellow black South Africans would have richer more fulfilling lives if they embraced and worked with it’s white citizens rather than simply displacing and replacing them in positions of power. He also knew that that would be a hard sell.

I remember well some worldly wise “friends” telling me in the 1970s that there was no chance in hell that white South Africans would allow blacks to vote and thus turn over the government to blacks. They would fight to the death rather than give in. My “friends” were reflecting not only the view that South Africa’s blacks were incapable of ruling the country
efficiently and justly, but that those in power for all those years would never give it up to anyone. In part my “friends” were ignorant of the actual attitudes of many of South Africa’s whites toward South African blacks. And no one expected a Nelson Mandela to take over the Presidency. It is still too early to know whether post apartheid South Africa will succeed in efficient and just governance, but that it even has a chance is the result of the belief and commitment of Mandela and the last white President F. W. de Klerk and others that the nation must rise above the hatred and score settling for the injustices of decades of the oppression of one people by another if it was to become great (or even survive).

My old “friends” were reflecting an all too human and common attitude of those who have ruled and dominated others for many years. They were reflecting the fear that the “ruling class” might not be able to stay in power on the basis of merit alone and thus needed to become more and more repressive toward the groups that might challenge them. Consider, for example, the outcry of some older American immigrants—we might call them the decedents of Mayflower Christians who came here to find religious freedom and less oppressive government—toward new immigrants, legal as well as illegal. The Mexicans and other Latin’s flooding into the U.S., for example, are not bringing an alien culture with them. They are part of that broader Anglo culture dominated by the Roman Catholic and other Christian Churches and the values they hold. So what is it that our old guard nativists fear? In part, perhaps largely, they fear the loss of their position in society. But why should they fear that in the “land of the free” if they hold their positions by merit? We must be suspicious of the motives of such people.

Before he was President of South Africa, Mandela was in prison for 27 years for opposing the white South African government as a leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress. He was released February 11, 1990 and led the ANCs participation in the negotiations that resulted in a new constitution opening participation in the government to all South Africans. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with de Klerk in 1994. It was not easy for black South Africans to forgive a lifetime of oppression by whites. But for a man who had spent 27 of the most productive years of his life in prison to not only forgive but to lead his fellow black South Africans to deep and genuine reconciliation with their white oppressors in the interests of all South Africans is extraordinary and the mark of a truly great man.

Great leaders like Mandela, Gandhi, King, and Ronald Reagan, another of my heroes, were optimists who believed that the world could be made a better place for everyone and devoted themselves to that task. Those who out of fear (or plain malice) spread misinformation about others—e.g., Muslims who demonize America and Americans who demonize Islam—can create the very world they fear if we take them seriously. They endanger all of us and potentially make the world a worse place. I stand in awe of the greatness of Nelson Mandela, who could rise so far above his own suffering and the injustices against him to see and promote the higher principles that help make people and
society decent. “Invictus” is a deeply inspiring and moving movie.

Kyrgyzstan in Crisis

My heart goes out to the poor people of Kyrgyzstan. They seem to be sliding into civil war. The current government of this small, poor central Asian country of 5 million people, in power for only two months, seems unable to contain the ethnic violence in the south near the Uzbek boarder and is appealing for outside help. Nestled between Kazakhstan to the north, China and Uzbekistan to the east and west and Tajikistan to the south (and Afghanistan just beyond), Kyrgyzstan provides an example of how it might look easy for the U.S. to help a friend—they have allowed us to set up an airbase there that we use for supplying our troops in Afghanistan to the south. The Kyrgyz Army is weak and its police corrupt. The new government just drove out a corrupt President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev,
who had come to power in March 2005 in the bloodless Tulip Revolution that replaced Askar Akaev, Kyrgyzstan’s first President since its independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. They need help to survive.

When I first visited this little mountain country in February 1992, I referred to it as the Switzerland of central Asia. Like Switzerland its snow-capped mountains are spectacular and it has few natural resources. I suggested that like Switzerland it could become wealthy with free markets, good policies, and hard work. I lead the International Monetary Fund’s
technical assistance to the National Bank of Kyrgyzstan and helped it replace the Russian ruble with its own currency, the Som, in May 1993. A matched set of that currency with the serial number 000000011, personally signed by the then governor Kemelbek Nanaev, hangs proudly on my office wall. At a celebration of the 5th anniversary of the Som, President Akaev, whose match set of the Som has the serial number 000000001, personally presented me with Kyrgyzstan’s Certificate of Honor for my role in introducing the currency. Some of the most exciting days of my life were in Kyrgyzstan. My strongly felt sympathies are with the new government. Yet it would be a tragic mistake for the United States to become militarily involved in restoring peace there.

Ms. Roza Otunbayeva, the interim leader until elections can be held later this year, has reaffirmed the U.S. lease on Manas Air Base after her deposed predecessor had tried to close it. She seems to be surrounded by pro market, pro freedom reformers. We have every reason to wish her government well. But a U.S. intervention would be taking sides in a potential civil war. Russia has bases in Kyrgyzstan as well and can hardly be indifferent to the fate of its neighbor and former fellow member of the Soviet Union. Russia has, up until now, wisely rejected Ms. Otunbayeva’s call for help and both Russia and the U.S. are exploring the possibility of international (U.N.) assistance. The U.S. Manas Air Base is an important U.S. air link to Afghanistan, but Kyrgyzstan is not critical to U.S. security. In any event, Ms. Otunbayeva asked Russia for help, not the U.S.

Were she to turn to us for help, it might look relatively easy to provide it. We have troops there already. But then for good or ill her problems would become ours and there is no knowing, really, what problems we might be taking on. The Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars looked very different when we got into them than they did at the other end of the process (when ever that might be for the later two). We need to try hard to imagine how it might look in a few years looking back. If there is a good case for external help, the U.S. and Russia should be able to make that case to the U.N. If and when the U.N. acts, it will clearly be doing so above and beyond the potentially conflicting national interests of parties to a new Great Game that we and the rest of the world can ill afford.

A Nation of Immigrants

I have had to remind myself of late that there is much to be proud of as an American. And I have not been prouder for a long time than I was last night listening to this year’s recipients of the Merage Foundation for the American Dream’s National Leadership Awards. Paul Merage family’s foundation is dedicated to “Helping Immigrants Join Mainstream America.” Mr. Merage is himself an immigrant from Iran, which he left in 1979 by necessity. But his choice to settle in the United States was his, and the Merage Foundation is one of his ways of expressing thanks for the opportunities that opened up to him here and to give something back to help keep America the dynamic, innovative home to immigrants that has been such an important component of our success as a

America is the wealthiest nation on earth because it is the most productive. Many other countries provide us with first class competition these days. We will retain our markets and our edge only through remaining productive and innovative. We will be the best only as long as our workers and entrepreneurs are the best trained, best equipped, and best incentivized to continually perfect processes and innovate.

America is exceptional among nations in that it is almost totally a nation of immigrants – self selected immigrants who chose to come to our environment in which they were free to work hard and experiment. Mr. Merage noted that immigrants must change to adapt to their new homes and that a culture of change is good for innovation. In our globalized, highly competitive market, innovation is our competitive edge. Mr. Merage stated that those who say that America’s best days are behind her are wrong. They are wrong because of the continual infusion of enthusiasm and innovation from a never-ending
inflow of eager new immigrants.

Mr. Merage also noted that no nation can receive new immigrants without some trepidation and worry about how they will fit in and adapt to its culture and ways. Fear is a powerful emotion. Mr. Merage noted that we can all understand the fears of Arizonans and others over whether our relatively open borders are letting in the wrong people. Fear can cloud good judgment, for example, about who are criminals and where they come from. But America remains the most welcoming of all countries to our great benefit. Its can do spirit and the general decency of its people are magnets for the world’s best and brightest and most hard working. The Merage Foundation is dedicated to
helping them assimilate successfully.

This years winners of the National Leadership Awards where:
Eric Benhamou (Algeria), Chairman and CEO of Benhamou Global Ventures, cofounder
of Bridge Communications, and CEO of 3Com and Palm; Amador S. Bustos (Mexico),
Chairman and CEO of Bustos Media in California; Roger Cohen (England),
Columnist for the New York Times; Gloria Estefan (Cuba), singer, composer and
author; Dikembe Mutombo (Congo), Former NBA star; Arnold Schwarzenegger
(Austria), Governor of California and former Terminator; and Ahmed H. Zewail
(Egypt), Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1999. The event was cosponsored by the
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and I am grateful to my friend
Steve Meeter for inviting me.

Each winner addressed us with touching stories of how and why they came to America and how they flourished here financially and spiritually. The Terminator spoke to us by video because of the elections in California that day. Most of them expressed understanding but sadness that fear had pushed Arizona to trample on some cherished American qualities of openness to immigrants. Sorting out a proper balance and policy toward immigration is not and will not be easy but it is a critical, pressing need.

The most dramatic address was by Dr. Halel Esfandiari, Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Middle East Program. At last years awards dinner, Ms. Esfandiari was in prison in Tehran, where she had been since May 8, 2007. She had returned to her native Iran in December 2006 to visit her 93-year-old mother. The blood curdling story of her arrest and imprisonment can be found on the Woodrow Wilson center website.  She told us that those at last year’s awards dinner had prayed for her release and here she was. Keep those prayers coming, she said, there is so much more to do.

Paul Merage summed up the spirit of the evening by noting that the symbol of America must remain the welcoming Statue of Liberty, not The Wall (pick your favorite).