Mandela delivers mixed message

Support tempered with advice at UM

November 15, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Former South African President Nelson Mandela reiterated his support for the war in Afghanistan in a speech last night at the University of Maryland but also urged that the United States end the war soon, invest more in the United Nations and not assume it is superior to the Muslim world.

Delivering the annual Anwar Sadat Lecture for Peace to an audience of more than 10,000 people packing Cole Field House, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said the U.S. military action is justified by the "terrible audacity" and "cold-blooded efficiency" of the terrorist attacks Sept. 11.

"We accept that the United States and Britain are bent on bringing to book the identified terrorists and that the unfortunate civilian casualties that arise are coincidental," said Mandela. "We accept that they will and are taking all precautions possible within a war situation to minimize civilian casualties and suffering."

At the same time, Mandela said: "We must wish that the military action needed in pursuit of the objectives against terrorism will be concluded in the shortest time possible and that the world attention can turn to the other forms of action required to combat and eradicate terrorism."

Mandela, 83, is in the United States to promote a peace agreement he helped broker for Burundi, the central-African nation riven by ethnic fighting for the past eight years. On Monday, Mandela met with President Bush at the White House, where he expressed support for U.S. military action.

Hobbled by a leg injury but speaking with a resolute voice, Mandela added several caveats to that support last night, some of which caused some disquiet in the otherwise enthusiastic crowd.

He exhorted the United States to use the war on terrorism as an occasion to strengthen its commitment to the United Nations and other multinational organizations.

"The support that the U.S. and Britain have received from the international community for their stance and action against terrorism must surely in the future encourage them to lend their strongest support to making our world body an effective and potent agency for dealing with these international issues affecting peace and our common safety," he said.

And he warned the United States and other Western nations against overstating their superiority, as wealthy democracies, to the Muslim and Arab worlds. While it was his hope that the whole world would eventually embrace democracy, he said, some of the Arab world's autocratic regimes treat their people relatively well.

To some unease in the audience, Mandela pointed to Saudi Arabia, where, he said, everyone receives free education and health care without having to pay taxes. "There are ways in which Saudi Arabia has served its people in ways you don't see in the West," he said. "You can live in the center of New York City, and if you go to Harlem, you find poverty staring you in the face."

Mandela also gently upbraided Bush for his refusal to meet with Yasser Arafat last week, saying he told Bush on Monday that the decision hurt his credibility in the Arab world.

"This was a most serious mistake that confirms perceptions that the U.S. is a friend of Israel and not an impartial negotiator," he said. "I told [Bush], `I do not doubt your integrity, but this is the perception.'"

The speech was attended by, among others, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who said the event had special meaning for him. "I taught [at the University of Maryland] for 27 years and I reflect on that tonight because it equals exactly the number of years you were imprisoned," Glendening told Mandela, before announcing that he would receive honorary Maryland citizenship.

On several occasions, Mandela broke into humor, but the undertone of his speech was earnest, as he came close to predicting further terrorist attacks on the United States.

"What is disturbing is that the West, with all its technology and intelligence services and enormous vessels, was unable to have a clue about the attacks," he said. "That has serious implications."

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