Nation & World

Tutu sees lots of negatives, a few positives, in American foreign policy

5 min read

Desmond Tutu was a high school teacher in Johannesburg before he entered the ministry, and all these years later he is still very much the pedagogue.

“Good afternoon,” he said emphatically as he stepped to the podium at the Loeb Drama Center to deliver the Warren and Anita Manshel Lecture in American Foreign Policy on Nov. 15.

The answer from the standing-room-only audience was feeble, and Tutu responded with a look of affronted surprise, a familiar goad in the arsenal of effective teachers everywhere. There was a burst of laughter, followed by a hearty second try: “Good afternoon!”

Now the archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, Tutu rose to international prominence in the 1980s for his opposition to South Africa’s apartheid government. He received the Nobel Peace Prize for that work in 1984. After the fall of apartheid, Tutu headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 2007, Tutu convened a group of world leaders known as the Global Elders, dedicated to bringing their collective experience and insight to bear on some of the world’s most intractable problems.

He began his talk, titled “Goodness Triumphs Ultimately,” by remarking that the journal Foreign Policy recently asked him and other world figures to answer the question, “What gesture can the incoming United States president make to counteract anti-American feeling abroad?”

Tutu said he was not aware of any anti-American feeling. What he was aware of was “resentment and hostile opposition to this particular administration.”

This was not the first time he has made such a distinction. The Reagan administration, for example, turned a deaf ear to Tutu’s call for sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid government. But, Tutu said, “that did not make me anti-American. We appealed over the head of the president to the American people, and soon afterward Congress passed anti-apartheid legislation.”

Far from harboring anti-American feeling, Tutu said that he has been inspired by the United States ever since picking up a copy of Ebony magazine as a child and reading about Jackie Robinson breaking into major league baseball.

“I didn’t know anything about baseball, but what mattered was that a black man had made it against huge odds. I was sold on America from then on.”

News of African-American sports heroes and entertainers provided “an antidote to self-hatred” for black South Africans living under apartheid, Tutu said. In fact, the apartheid government tried to expunge American history from the school curriculum because it feared that the struggle of African Americans for equality would encourage South African blacks to rise up against oppression.

When the United States was attacked on 9/11, the world responded with “an outpouring of love, sympathy, and support,” Tutu said. President Bush should, Tutu suggested, have responded to the attacks “not as an act of war, but as an egregious crime. The perpetrators should have been apprehended and tried before an international criminal court. If that had happened, the whole world would have cooperated.”

Instead, Tutu contended, the Bush administration responded to the attacks according to “a simplistic world view” that looked at events in terms of “them and us, baddies and goodies.” Such a view required that the United States respond to 9/11 not as a criminal act, but as an act of war.

“But according to the rules of war, there has to be a nation, so Iraq was recruited,” Tutu said.

“The emergence of an enemy galvanized U.S. patriotism,” Tutu said, enabling the administration to manipulate patriotic feeling in order to pursue its own agenda. He compared this purported manipulation to methods used in South Africa.

“The apartheid government used similar techniques to impugn the patriotism of anyone who dared to criticize the government.”

Through its unilateral policies in Iraq, Tutu said, the United States has “thumbed its nose at the rest of the world” and has been “intent on throwing its weight around like a reckless bully.”

Tutu said he was shocked by what he sees as America’s willingness to abrogate the rule of law and to equivocate about the legality of waterboarding and other interrogation methods. Evoking the specter of an evil and powerful enemy as an excuse to jettison established values is another technique the Bush administration has in common with the apartheid government of South Africa, he claimed.

But despite the harshness of his criticism of recent U.S. foreign policy, Tutu’s feelings for the United States remain on the whole extremely positive.

“I speak as one who has not just admiration but a big love for this country.”

He praised President Bush’s recent stand against the military junta in Burma and thanked the United States for its generosity in the global struggles against AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Returning to the question posed by Foreign Affairs, Tutu said, “There is one magnanimous act the new president could make. The new president would be surprised by the world’s reaction if he were to say, ‘We made a big mistake over Iraq. We’re sorry.’”

Such a gesture would not only serve to sweeten world opinion, Tutu said, but would help to bring about the outcome promised in the title of his lecture.

“This is a moral universe. Right and wrong actually do matter. Ultimately, truth, justice, goodness, and compassion will triumph over their ghastly counterparts.”