Loyalty and Realpolitik

Mandela's challenge to Clinton - to talk to US 'enemies' - highlights a basic political divide. Is his advice good?

Yesterday's newspaper may, traditionally, wrap fish. And yesterday's top news may disappear into a black hole as the media spotlight rushes to the next topic du jour.

But it would be a loss not to come back to Nelson Mandela's characteristically forthright challenge to Bill Clinton last week to do something about what the US has labelled "rogue" nations. President Mandela said he raised the cause of Iran, Libya, and Cuba out of loyalty to those who had helped his cause in its darkest hour.

It was obvious, though, that more than loyalty impelled him. He also indicated a moral belief in talking with one's enemies.

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Is this just sentimentality, out of touch with the hardball world of realpolitik? Will President Clinton do well to forget the advice after he flies home?

Quite the contrary. He ought to recall the historic aftereffects of Nixon's overture to China, Anwar Sadat's speech to Israel's Knesset, Margaret Thatcher's calling Gorbachev a man she "could do business with."

Ah, but there's the red flag. Can Mr. Clinton do business with Iran's Mohammad Khatami, Cuba's Fidel Castro, and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi?

How does one distinguish between a productive Sadat overture to Israel and a self-deceiving Neville Chambelain deal with Hitler?

There's no one, easy answer. But a chief component of a wise judgment lies in tough-mindedly exploring all openings. And also using the good offices of third parties such as Mandela.

Despite doubts from Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel Berger, about Mandela's advice, the Clinton Administration has recently made some productive moves toward two "rogue" states on Mandela's list.

It has begun to explore the olive branch that Iran's President Khatami offered the US after his election last year. And it has taken a first step toward easing the long, tight embargo against Cuba.

Administration officials are quietly pleased that Iran's government has indicated it will go along with any eventual settlement with Israel the Palestinian Authority finds acceptable. And US intelligence sources believe Iran's leader is trying to reduce aid to terrorist groups.

Mr. Clinton would do well to speed the exploration for an opening with Iran. After all, Mr. Khatami was freely elected by a huge majority, and has made several gestures toward healing the two-decade split with the US. And he could use some backing in his own internal struggle against zealots.

There is less reason for speed on Cuba. Castro does not allow open elections. But the US should nonetheless be examining the long range subject of how to help bring about a genuinely elected leader there in future. Otherwise it may face a hand-me-down Communist boss after Castro.

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