Viewpoint: If the Contras Were Fighting Apartheid…


The Iran-contra hearings have been very instructive fare. First, they were nothing like the Watergate hearings, although some participants evidently hoped that matters would degenerate to the sleazy level of Watergate. No such luck.

What we have had is a hypocritical display of self-righteousness—by a new breed of law-and-order liberals—about the sanctity of a piece of dubious legislation, the Boland Amendment, that was preceded and followed by legislation that clearly contradicted it.

But the real issue at stake is not any petty circumvention of the Boland Amendment. It is whether the objective at hand—supporting people who are fighting the Sandinista government of Nicaragua—is worth breaking any laws or coming mighty close to doing so.

Whether the United States ought to embark on foreign interventionism is a nonissue. Few if any of the righteous accusers on the Hill can claim to be isolationists or noninterventionists.

No, the real issue for policymakers is interventionism for what purpose? Should the United States support an anticommunist group, members of which are probably no more or less pure of heart than were the freedom fighters in Hungary or the Revolutionary War? Or should we regard them as fighting the wrong fight because the Sandinistas, while not a very nice group of individuals, are no worse—and perhaps better—than what Nicaragua has had during its recent checkered history?

Perhaps the following exercise will cast congressional stone-throwing in a more realistic light. Imagine that "South Africa" is located where Nicaragua is today. It is a vicious little tyranny of the minority, keeping most of its people oppressed, with no intention of letting them participate in the political or economic affairs of their own country.

Imagine, also, that a reasonably devoted, although somewhat unruly and ideologically diverse, group of people is determined to fight the regime and bring about something more nearly democratic. Millions of people are sympathetic to the rebels' cause. Organizations throughout the world want "South Africa" changed to an open society, but the regime will not budge.

Furthermore, imagine a different administration in Washington, headed by President McGovern, or Mondale, or Jesse Jackson and staffed by individuals who clearly support the cause of the rebels. Congress has been flip-flopping about whether to aid the rebels, at times authorizing support, at times restricting it to humanitarian assistance, and at times prohibiting any U.S. government involvement at all. Perhaps Vietnam has soured some members of Congress; perhaps some sympathize with "gradualism" when it comes to defeating a weak neighboring tyranny.

So the administration is encouraging support for the rebels by various means that skirt the law—hints are made to rich foreign "friends," and schemes are explored to provide funding that technically escapes being illegal. Officials of the National Security Council and even some ambassadors aid in the effort to secure help for the rebels. In short, imagine that this hypothetical administration does exactly what the Reagan administration did—but not to fight the Sandinistas, to fight South African apartheid.

Does anyone believe that there would be a congressional probe as diligent and accusing as there is now about the Iran-contra fiasco? Does anyone believe that the Congress, the press, and the intelligentsia would vent grave concern?

No sensible person could. Indeed, it is easy to imagine the perpetrators as candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize.

There is simply nowhere near the kind of ambivalence toward racist South Africa in the upper echelons of Washington, D.C., or in the print and broadcast media, that there is toward communist Nicaragua. No Hollywood stars would conduct pilgrimages to South Africa, arguing for internal reform or supporting temporary apartheid itself. No pundits would defend the regime's "emergency" suspension of civil liberties.

There is no question about the evil of racism. But socialism and communism have never had as bad a name. Something about these systems seems to our intellectuals, including many politicians, to excuse or at least mitigate the horrors perpetrated in their name. As Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation, wrote in his book Naming Names: "[There is] the profound difference between Marxists, who identified with the weak and spoke the language of social justice, and fascists, who identified with an elite and spoke the language of racism and violence."

But no such difference exists. The fascists of Hitler's era and Marxists in every instance seek state power to subjugate and control. Both systems can be made to sound palatable. Both have been defended for their good intentions. Both claim to be sincere. And both are detestable, horrid ideas worthy of nothing but vigilant resistance everywhere.

Yet, in one respect the Marxist-Leninist program of evil is more globally encompassing than fascism or its comrade, apartheid. The Marxist-Leninist vision, as the radical Islamic one, calls for total world domination. And it is that vision—and how the United States should cope with it—that should be debated on Capitol Hill.

Senior Editor Tibor R. Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University. He is the editor, most recently, of The Main Debate: Communism versus Capitalism.