It's a strong field in which to compete, but the contest for the most stupid remarks about the impending confrontation with Saddam Hussein has apparently been won by Nelson Mandela. Not content with describing this confrontation as a "holocaust" and attributing every administration motive to the greed for oil, the first president of liberated South Africa said that contempt had been shown for the United Nations because Kofi Annan was black, and that such things never used to happen when U.N. general secretaries were white. (This is the second time in six months that Mandela has said this and the second time that Kofi Annan has had no comment on the suggestion.)
Where to begin? And what to say when Nelson Mandela plays the race card? I can remember when the secretary-general was Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian Coptic Christian married to an Egyptian Jew, and I can remember when he said that the West cared about Bosnia only because Bosnians were white. I didn't know how to begin on that occasion, either, because the fact was that the West at that stage didn't give a damn for the Bosnians. But if it had followed Boutros-Ghali's advice and let Bosnia slide, we would certainly now be hearing that nobody cared for the Bosnians because they were Muslim.
In the same period an urgent fax was received at the United Nations HQ from the French-Canadian commander in Rwanda, Gen. Romeo Dallaire. It warned that plans for genocide were about to be made real and begged for a small increase in the U.N. military presence in Kigali. The fax landed on Kofi Annan's desk (he was then a deputy to Boutros-Ghali) and stayed there. Madeleine Albright later vetoed any further action to forestall the mass slaughter of Tutsi by Hutu. I can think of many reasons to condemn Annan's culpable inaction, but I would hesitate to assert that he lifted no finger to save fellow Africans because he was by birth a Ghanaian but married to a Swede (who, incidentally, is a direct descendant of Raoul Wallenberg).
During the last round with Saddam Hussein, the secretary-general of the U.N. was a listless Peruvian named Javier Perez de Cuellar. He also conceived it as his job to ask for "more time" (without ever specifying more time for what) and incurred much American criticism for doing so. Are Peruvians white or black? Or neither? Does the epidermis count in such matters?
The Burmese U Thant was a ditherer par excellence as secretary-general, but he enjoyed wide respect for his philosophical bearing and manner. Kurt Waldheim basked in support from all factions during his period of pointless jet-setting but was then discovered to have been a raging Nazi and is now, because of the brown-ness of his former shirt at least, forbidden even to set foot in the United States. That's racism for you. The only secretary-general to have been really hated by the leading Western powers was the pale Scandinavian Dag Hammarskjold, and there are to this day those who believe that his plane crash in Africa was no accident. He had devoted himself to the saving of the post-independence Belgian Congo and to the prevention of Katangese secession: an important cause that Nelson Mandela as a young man would have followed closely.
In other words, there isn't even any metaphorical truth in what one of the world's moral heroes has just said. And a pool of embarrassment has formed around his remarks: Not even Cynthia McKinney is likely to want to push it this far. I doubt that Jacques Chirac, whose fondness for Africans and for abrupt interventions in Africa is sans pareil, will want to take advantage of this rhetorical opportunity, either.
A further question arises. Does Mandela suppose that weapons of mass destruction are no matter? South Africa is the country most often cited as exemplary in its decision to destroy the nuclear devices that it built under the foul old regime and to demonstrate (indeed, to volunteer) clear and precise compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In the very week that Iraq declines contemptuously to do the same, Mandela speaks as if the U.N. were being insulted only by those who sponsored the disarmament resolution. And to this he adds the accusation that those who disagree with him are guilty of racism! There were those who said that South Africa disarmed itself only so that nukes would not fall into the hands of blacks. Does Mandela now think that they were right?
The grand old man has made crass remarks before. In a speech in Kenya a few years ago he said that critics of then-President Moi were motivated by colonialist nostalgia. The Kenyan voters recently and overwhelmingly dismissed the candidate of the discredited Moi regime. Mandela also praised Col. Qaddafi and Maximum Leader Fidel Castro for their help in assisting the revolution in South Africa (which is true enough in the case of Cuba). But he said this while defending his policy of uncritical friendship with both leaders. A man of ordinary moral courage might have gone as far as saying that he wished they had been elected, as he himself was (by a probable majority if not plurality of "white" votes as well as black, Indian, and "mixed" ones). What could he have been afraid of? But political courage and moral and physical courage are not axiomatically linked, and Mandela has a surplus only of the last two.
I have never in my life kept a photograph of myself with any politician or celebrity except the one I have of my meeting with Mandela. I can remember sitting and drinking several times with his successor Thabo Mbeki, in the latter's student leftist days. Nothing can take anything away from the imperishable movement that they and others led. But this latest garbage is a very timely caution against our common tendency to make supermen and stars and heroes out of fellow humans. Iraq is not Saddam any more than Zimbabwe is Mugabe, and being on the right side of history once is no guarantee that the subsequent fall will not be from a very great height.