Nelson Mandela is as close to being a secular saint as this world allows. Great suffering and great endurance in the pursuit of a good cause have made him a hero in the eyes of the world. He is one of the very few people who can be paired with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as a living martyr whose courage in the face of tyranny was an individual moral act that has had consequence for millions.
But even saints can be silly, which is forgivable. And sometimes they can be nasty, which is forgivable but a shame, nonetheless. For silliness, we just have to turn to Mr. Mandela's recent statement accusing George W. Bush of wishing to undermine the United Nations because its Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, is black. Mr. Mandela phrased that part of a speech to the International Women's Forum as a rhetorical question. His answer is clear from the rest of the speech.
There are many reasons why Mr. Bush might not think highly of the UN. The most recent one might be the elevation of Libya to the chairmanship of the UN Human Rights Commission and the pending elevation of Iraq to the chairmanship of a conference on disarmament. We might think that such flamboyant reaches after absurdity and hypocrisy were the dreams of some manic sitcom, were they not all too real. An institution that can find a place for Libya to head the scrutiny of the world's human-rights abuses has wandered so far into Nineteen Eighty-Four country that it's emerged in Kafkaland.
It might be worth noting that, four years after its inspectors were kicked out of Iraq, the UN had done nothing. It was only Mr. Bush's challenge to the UN to live up to its own resolutions that woke the UN from its complacency on this issue. The UN is relevant in the Iraq crisis because Mr. Bush challenged it to be.
But regardless of these considerations, there may remain an encyclopedia of reasons why Mr. Bush does not have a high opinion of the UN. Tick the list as you may, and troll the encyclopedia to its last entry, and you will not find Kofi Annan's being black among them. This is nasty trash talk, and Mr. Mandela should know better. He might also try to accommodate his racist innuendo with Mr. Bush's State of the Union pledge of $15-billion toward the fight against AIDS in Africa. It'll be a difficult join, but he should try to make it.
The Kofi Annan question is by no means the zenith of Mr. Mandela's flight into insult and absurdity. I thought his proposition that "if there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America" probably put a strain on the altimeter as well (there are a few countries in Africa that have done their bit for "unspeakable atrocities").
Surely it would not do to dip into history to speak of the butcheries of communism as it has brought its nightmares into totalitarian realization. And there is Iraq, with its tyranny, torture chambers and professional rapists. In the malign Olympics of human suffering, the United States is not even in the building.
When Mr. Mandela met Mr. Bush in November of 2001, he "left with the impression that we're dealing with a president who was misrepresented" and went on to say he "was tremendously impressed." Evidently, that estimation has faded. Now Mr. Bush is "a president who has no foresight and cannot think properly [and]is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust."
Is there so little memory of Sept. 11? It's as if George Bush was the one who flew those planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The world is in the spin it is in now because of terrorism. And because the success of one attack has finally woken the world -- particularly the United States -- that it must do everything to prevent a second, more appalling attack. Among the real possibilities is the fusion of international terror with the means of destruction provided by states such as Iraq.
Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden seem to have merited no mention at all from Mr. Mandela. Perhaps that is because, in his opinion, they are "better thinkers." Or perhaps it's because, in the strange world of the UN, with which Mr. Mandela seems so comfortable, the real villains are always getting a pass.
I still think Nelson Mandela is a hero. But his geopolitics, if the speech at the International Women's Forum is any indication, lack both the melody and the weight of Sheryl Crow's. Rex Murphy is a commentator with CBC-TV's The National and host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup .