With the death of Nelson Mandela, the mythology continues that, under Ronald Reagan, the 1980s was the lost decade in dealing with South Africa. It’s the same old line — Reagan was insensitive to AIDS because he wasn’t gay. He was insensitive to racism because he wasn’t black. And he was not involved in policy, because he wasn’t very deep. All of that is just not true.
During the recent Bush Administration, I served on the board of the National Defense University (NDU) and came to know two of my colleagues — Chester Crocker and Edward Perkins. Chet, an academician who served on the National Security Council under Nixon, is an amiable and gracious gentleman and a scholar. A man of enormous good will, Chet served as Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs for the entire eight years. He was unjustly pilloried by Christopher Hitchens and others for crafting the allegedly “soft” U.S. policy of “constructive engagement” toward apartheid South Africa. In fact, the policy was strategic and allowed for Reagan’s philosophy, per his U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, of seeking change within authoritarian regimes as opposed to isolating totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union, which required full confrontation. And, at that time during the Cold War, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress was a Marxist, if not pro-Communist, organization, so prudence was required.
In 1986, Chet recommended to Secretary of State George Shultz the appointment of Ed Perkins to be U.S. Ambassador to South Africa. Secretary Shultz did not know Ed, but both were former Marines, and Ed, then U.S. Ambassador to Liberia, admired Shultz’s integrity and deliberative, scholarly approach. In his book Mr. Ambassador, Ed suggests that Pat Buchanan was successful in limiting the sanctions that resulted in President Reagan’s executive order that year. Pat, a Eurocentric, had quite another mindset on Africa and the Mideast. It would not be the first or the last time Pat was on the wrong side of an issue.
In his book, Ed says, quite simply, that neither George Shultz nor Ronald Reagan have been given credit for their determination to change apartheid in South Africa. Shultz told Ed, “No one has the right to ask you or any other black person to go down there.” Some thought the Afrikaners might try to assassinate a black ambassador. And “black leaders” here, he was told, would attack Ed as a sell-out to a “racist” president, and they did belittle the appointment.
Ed told Reagan’s personnel director that he was a career foreign service officer, not a Republican, but a registered independent. Ed did not get along with Reagan’s chief of staff, Don Regan, but that’s hardly surprising, since Regan was an arrogant Wall Street crony capitalist whose opposition to sanctions was probably rooted in corporate relationships. But when it came to Reagan himself, Ed and the President had immediate rapport. Ed recollects how informed Reagan was on Africa and also Reagan’s moral clarity. And, then, there was Ronald Reagan the man. President Reagan asked Ed personal questions about his upbringing, his wife, his family, and what he would do as ambassador. Then, he told Ed that he was, in effect, personally appointing him U.S. Ambassador to South Africa and, almost unheard of, giving him authorization to make American policy from the embassy. Ed recalls that in subsequent meetings during his ambassadorship, Reagan was very much always in control and thoroughly analytical and well engaged — hardly the detached caricature drawn by liberals.
The Congressional Black Caucus initially was hardly supportive of Ed, and the government-favored South African press predictably blasted the appointment. Jesse Jackson and other anti-Reagan “black leaders” tried to dissuade Ed Perkins from taking the job. But Ed became, in his words, “a change agent” from the moment he set foot in South Africa and in the first official private meeting with South Africa’s President P.W. Botha, who directly insulted him and indirectly insulted President Reagan. Later, when Botha reneged on an agreement to stop assassinating dissidents across the border, Reagan simply bypassed the State Department entirely and had Ed personally deliver to Botha a strong letter signed not by the Secretary of State but by Reagan himself that included vintage, authentic Reagan: “You have broken your word.”
There is a lot more to the story. But the bottom line is that President Reagan’s personal envoy made policy from the moment he refused to accept segregated housing for the black State Department employees. And he reached out to all groups, from rigid Afrikaners to black Marxist revolutionaries, while making clear the U.S. position was against apartheid and against violent change and for a market economy. And he directly challenged the nationalization plans of the Marxists, instructing them instead on the virtues of “cooperative capitalism.”
Ed Perkins eventually was appointed by President George H.W. Bush as Ambassador to the U.N. But his tenure was short-lived, as partisan Democrats around incoming President Bill Clinton saw the professional diplomat as “one of those Republicans,” and Ed, without even a courtesy call, was replaced by Madeline Albright. Embarrassed by the backlash, President Clinton eventually appointed Perkins as Ambassador to Australia.
Former Secretary of State Jim Baker suggests that Reagan probably regretted his veto of the tougher sanctions against South Africa. Not so fast. President Reagan’s priority in those years was not the downfall of the government in South Africa, but the downfall of the government in the Soviet Union. By selecting a black American to be ambassador, President Reagan sent a message. And by sending Ed Perkins, Reagan showed that his selection was not some politically correct symbol of diversity but the real deal. In his book, Ed Perkins makes it clear that he hardly admired Winnie Mandela. And, unlike many in the State Department and many progressives, including the current American president, Ed believes in American exceptionalism. In South Africa, he celebrated the U.S. Constitution and its genius of a democratic republic of limited, balanced powers.
There are many incidents that can be recounted during Ambassador Perkins’ South African tour of duty. At times, Ed even gave Embassy or consular sanctuary to political dissidents, just as President Reagan would have allowed in a Communist country. He turned away Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson when they wanted to exploit the situation. When challenged by the South African government, Ed Perkins declared that the dissidents were on sovereign territory. And when Botha (who, ironically, would later become part of Nelson Mandela’s government) and his hard-line emissaries repeatedly became belligerent, Ed Perkins replied with his ace-in-the-hole line — that he was acting on behalf of the President of the United States — Ronald Reagan.
Arnold Steinberg is a strategist, analyst and author, who has consulted in public policy, media, politics, and philanthropy. He also is an expert in quantitative research (polls) and qualitative research (focus groups).
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