As the eulogies for Nelson Mandela begin to appear it's the perfect moment to reflect on how the U.S. responded to his calls to end apartheid.
In the early 1980s I was living illegally in the "Blacks Only" South African township of Madadeni. People in the townships were well aware that the U.S. government supported the racist regime and was unwilling to invoke consequences against the dictatorship. It fueled an anti-Americanism from people who felt the U.S. was not only not on their side but was colluding in their repression.
Several years later bipartisan leadership in Congress changed American policy toward South Africa, condemned apartheid for the evil it was, and began to repair the reputation of the United States in the country and across the continent.
Today, just as during the bleak days of apartheid, oppressive regimes imprison and harass human rights activists, Mandela's spiritual heirs. And just as they did half a century ago, American policymakers today have a choice: will the United States stand with oppressors or with those claiming their human rights?
President Carter broke with traditional U.S. policy and confronted Pretoria, publicly criticizing apartheid and backing a U.N. arms embargo. But when he took office President Reagan reinstituted a deferential policy and gave it a name: constructive engagement. The idea was that the United States would work behind the scenes with reputed moderates in the apartheid government and that economic ties would spur political reform. But in practice, constructive engagement gave the apartheid regime license to do whatever it wanted to do as long as it supported U.S. strategic interests.
By the mid-1980s, when I working on anti-apartheid legislation for Sen. Ted Kennedy, I often heard depressing excuses from administration officials about why public criticism of South Africa was a bad idea. Yes, they said, South Africa was sometimes an embarrassing ally, but it offered stability, protected U.S. interests, and real elections might bring something worse. Reform needed to happen, they said, but at a sensibly slow pace.
President Reagan continued to back the apartheid regime even as domestic and international pressure mounted, even as South African President Pieter W. Botha gave his infamous "Rubicon speech" saying his government would never accept one man, one vote. In 1986, Reagan vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which would have imposed economic sanctions on South Africa unless it met five conditions. Releasing Mandela was one of them.
But then something extraordinary happened. Republicans, led by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, joined with Democratic senators to override the veto, putting U.S. policy on the side of human rights. This was the first time in the 20th century that Congress had overridden a veto on a foreign policy issue.
The anti-apartheid act put the United States government on the right side of history and undid some of the damage done by its alliance with South Africa's racist government. Desperately needed today are actions that will both support courageous human rights activists and improve Washington's reputation in the Middle East where citizens have too long watched it prop up tyrants.
Sadly, I hear the same arguments -- even the same phrases -- from some Obama administration officials when I talk to them about Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. They argue that pressure is best brought to bear "behind closed doors" because public criticism can be counterproductive, that those governments "don't respond to threats." I've even heard some use the term constructive engagement to describe their approach to dealing with today's autocrats. And among some U.S. officials, the demonstrably dubious notion that strong economic ties will produce political reform remains an article of faith.
Economic boycotts of autocracies might not always be the best approach, but cozying up to dictators is always the worst. U.S. officials should reflect on Mandela's career and think of today's political prisoners. Like Mandela, today's activists are often smeared by authorities as terrorists. Like Mandela, they may someday become leaders of their governments.
Pro-democracy, pro-dignity movements are often derided for failing to have a Mandela in their ranks. I met Mandela and agree that with his grace and palpable moral authority, he is one of kind. There are no replicas. But across the world there are thousands of courageous, persecuted activists who deserve the support of the United States.