Why Nelson Mandela surprised us

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Every once in a while, a great man surprises us. Such was the case with Nelson Mandela.

If you’re in the business of playing the percentages around the globe, it’s safe to assume today’s insurgent will be tomorrow’s tinhorn dictator. Rarely does a George Washington come along. “Much more common,” observes Max Boot, “are insurgents like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Mugabe, Kim Il Sung, and (fill in the blank) who, while posturing as freedom fighters battling an evil dictatorship, swiftly become dictators in turn as soon as they seize power.”

So if you were placing a bet on the odds that an imprisoned man who was officially considered a “terrorist” would turn into one of the great men of the 20th century, you know which bet is the smart money. As Quin Hillyer notes, in the early 1980s Mandela “wouldn’t publicly renounce violence while in prison; his wife was a Marxist who countenanced ‘necklacing’ enemies with tires full of burning fuel…” It’s understandable why a lot of conservatives — a lot of Americans — were skeptical of Mandela.

But that’s assuming a neutral environment. If pessimism is a safe strategy in good times, it’s important to consider the context of much of this taking place during the Cold War. As Dave Weigel observes: “You don’t hear many of the (minority of) Republicans who voted against sanctions on South Africa reminiscing about it, but at the time they weighed anti-Communism against racial oppression and anti-Communism won out.”

In retrospect, it’s easy to think of Mandela as the grandfatherly statesman, just as it’s easy to think of Cold War as a time of overwrought paranoia. But the Soviet Union posed an existential threat; it’s not like nuclear weapons weren’t aimed at us. Such a thing has a way of focusing your priorities. In that milieu, one can understand why the U.S. would have been very cautious about anyone who had even “dabbled” in Communism.

In hindsight, of course, some Americans now have egg on their faces. It’s always safer to assume the worst and then beg forgiveness later. And it’s safe to assume that in any given moment we, as a nation, are overreacting about something — but you never know which of the precautions you’re taking are superfluous until it’s too late to do anything about it.

A big part of Ronald Reagan’s legacy was defeating Communism. One cannot undertake such a large task without there being some serious unintended consequences. Our hasty withdraw from Lebanon, for example, can only be properly understood when viewed through this prism. And yet, this move may have also emboldened Iran and its Shiite clients. By his own admission, it emboldened the Sunni terrorist Osama bin Laden.

This, of course, makes me wonder what collateral damage our war on terror is causing today. Even if the ends justify the means, we may be planting the seeds for tomorrow’s problems. As Peter Daou observes,

This is not an argument for paralysis. But it is an argument for constant introspection and occasional optimism. Sometimes we are surprised. Such was the case with Mandela, a man whose character led him to eschew violence and bitterness, and be a uniter. But it wasn’t obvious this story would have a happy ending.  As Weigel notes, “The U.S. sometimes identifies the wrong guy as the black hat.”