Return of the ugly American

President Clinton's choice of Carol Moseley-Braun as ambassador to New Zealand elevates a hypocrite who put her fianci's financial gain ahead of concern for human-rights violations.

By Bruce Shapiro

Published November 9, 1999 7:00PM (EST)

In Nigeria, there is a soft-spoken but persistent investigative journalist named Sunday Dare. One afternoon a few years ago, Dare sat in my office in New York describing in casual fashion what it was like to practice the craft of reporting under the government of General Sani Abacha, who was at the time the country's dictator and plunderer-in-chief. To evade imprisonment or assassination, Dare and his colleagues slept in cars or public parks. They buried their notes and documents to avoid police scrutiny. They printed their magazines in secret and readers passed copies from hand to hand.

I thought of Dare on Friday while watching the testimony of Carol Moseley-Braun before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. General Abacha died in 1998, ringing down the curtain on what Nelson Mandela labeled an "illegitimate, barbaric, arrogant dictatorship." Moseley-Braun -- the former senator from Illinois nominated by President Clinton as ambassador to New Zealand -- was recalling the Abacha years in Nigeria. She suddenly spoke the phrase "longtime fighter for human rights" -- an honorific that might well have been applied to my friend Dare, or to the famed Ogoni community leader Ken Saro-Wiwa who was hanged by Abacha in 1995, or to the Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka who was charged by Abacha with treason.

Carol Moseley-Braun was instead describing herself -- and trying to explain why during the very years that Sunday Dare had to sleep in parks and cars to avoid being killed, this United States senator befriended Nigeria's ruler. In fact, she had devoted her last appearance before this very same committee to pleading Abacha's case.

Moseley's Braun's ambassadorial nomination -- to be voted on by the full Senate this week -- has roused more commotion than is usual for diplomatic posts. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., the Foreign Relations Committee chair, tried to block Moseley-Braun in retaliation for her 1993 role in revoking a patent for the Daughters of the Confederacy's stars-and-bars logo.

So nakedly partisan and petty was Helms' attack on the African-American former senator that Democrats kvelled and fellow Republicans ran for cover. If that bipartisan kiss-kiss session is any indication, Moseley-Braun will be on that ambassadorial flight to Wellington soon.

But as Malcolm X liked to say, even a broken clock is right twice a day, and as I watched Moseley-Braun testify, I couldn't help wondering if this time that old buzzard Helms might just have a point -- or at least the right conclusion based on the wrong reasoning.

Senators were not anxious to press Moseley-Braun about Nigeria, focusing instead on some easy questions about her campaign finances. But an ambassador's job is foreign policy, not election-expense paperwork. And when Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., finally delicately raised Nigeria, Moseley-Braun responded with precisely the same combination of dissembling, evasion and megalomania that
won her, and lost her, the Illinois Senate seat.

The appointment to New Zealand is hardly a case of being put out to pasture, despite the country's well-known lamb industry. In the debate over human rights in the emerging global economy, New Zealand is a country that very much matters. As a neutral industrial democracy at the edge of an Asian-Pacific region roiling with struggle among authoritarian regimes, corporations and democracy reformers, New Zealand plays an increasingly pivotal role in that debate.

It was New Zealand that last year brought the issue of an international ban on land mines to the United Nations and secured the signatures of virtually all industrial nations except the United States. New Zealand is also the most vocal opponent of nuclear testing in the Pacific, to the consternation of both France and Washington.

To the Beltway press corps, meanwhile, the Moseley-Braun nomination fight is simply another round of Clinton vs. the Republicans -- a round the president seems likely to win. In fact, the choice of Moseley-Braun to be a diplomat is a highly questionable move by the administration.

As a young journalist 20 years ago, I was an admirer of Carol Moseley-Braun. She was a hard-working, progressive-minded state representative from the Chicago neighborhood where I helped publish a community monthly. When Moseley-Braun was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992 -- just months after the Clarence Thomas debacle dramatized the dangers of an all-white, overwhelmingly male Senate -- I rejoiced, even though I'd long since left Chicago and hadn't, therefore, stayed closely informed about her rise.

It turned out that as she had made her way up through the Chicago machine, Moseley-Braun had changed. In the Senate, accordingly, she pursued high-profile symbolic crusades like that Daughters of the Confederacy emblem, instead of pressuring the Clinton administration to fulfill its civil-rights or health-reform promises. There were also persistent stories of campaign-finance abuses involving her fianci and campaign manager, Kgosi Matthews.

And then there were questions about Nigeria: questions raised not by Jesse Helms or by Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., but by Nigerian exiles and immigrants living in Chicago. Those Nigerians were shocked to learn that Moseley-Braun's fianci and campaign manager was on Abacha's payroll as a lobbyist, trying to persuade the United States to ease economic sanctions imposed after the international outcry at Saro-Wiwa's execution in 1995. And they were incredulous when Moseley-Braun herself began speaking out on Abacha's behalf.

If any country was an appropriate target for U.S. economic sanctions, it was Nigeria in the mid-'90s. The State Department's human-rights report repeatedly called Nigeria's record "dismal." Vast oil revenues were sucked straight to the Swiss bank accounts of Abacha and his cronies: Between 1980 and 1995, average annual income in Nigeria declined from about $1,000 per person to $260, despite massive international oil sales.

Yet in May 1996, Moseley-Braun appeared before the Foreign Relations Committee to complain that economic sanctions universally supported by Nigerian dissidents, human-rights lobbyists and the Congressional Black Caucus would amount to "second class world citizenship for Nigeria."

"I am testifying on behalf of democracy in Nigeria," she declared -- even though in seven trips there she never met with beleaguered democracy activists like Saro-Wiwa, who might still be alive if a U.S. senator had ever ratified his existence.

In a speech later that year, she went so far as say that compared with the rest of Africa, complaining about Nigerian abuses is like "opening the refrigerator, seeing an elephant and complaining that a jar of jam is missing."

The pot finally boiled over in August 1996. That month, Moseley-Braun and Matthews paid a social visit to Abacha. Newsweek and Nigerian national radio both reported that Moseley-Braun chatted amiably with the colonel who executed Saro-Wiwa -- a report Moseley-Braun denied in her testimony last week.

Incontestable, however, was the fact that she made the trip without notifying the White House, the State Department or even her own chief of staff, who resigned in protest. Abacha used the occasion to present a letter endorsing President Clinton's re-election, an immense embarrassment to the White House. When George Will wrote a column criticizing the trip, Moseley-Braun exploded: Will "can just take his hood and go back wherever he came from." Braun apologized, but the damage to her own credibility from that Nigeria trip was, more than any other factor, responsible for her re-election defeat.

All politicians make mistakes, but when Sen. Coverdell offered Moseley-Braun "a chance to cleanse that whole question of Nigerian travel" she showed little evidence of either rethinking or honest self-assessment. When Coverdell asked her to "agree or disagree" with the Congressional Black Caucus and State Department's criticisms of her trip, she changed the subject.

"At no time have I taken a position or taken any action that was in any way contradictory or in any way contravened U.S. policy," she repeated twice -- even though the whole thrust of her 1996 statements was to condemn U.S. sanctions on the Abacha regime.

This would-be diplomat alternately declared her trips "private" affairs and compared them to other senators' attempts to "maintain conversations" with nations under sanction like Cuba. And most incredibly of all, she claimed that her sycophantic visits to the now-deceased Abacha might have helped move Nigeria "down the [democratic] path upon which it is now embarked."

Would any other ambassadorial nominee -- even a former senator -- get the same free ride from Democrats who pride themselves on their human-rights records? The Moseley-Braun nomination is a particularly bitter spectacle because she was elected to the Senate in 1992 in the backlash against the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. But just as the Bush administration's cynical playing of the race card in 1992 left senators fearful of opposing the unqualified and deceptive Thomas, so Democrats' gushing enthusiasm for Carol Moseley-Braun cynically obscures just as questionable a record of dissembling testimony and dubious alliances.

For the White House to appoint Moseley-Braun as U.S. ambassador to a society as committed to global citizenship as New Zealand shows either an exquisite sense of irony or a hopelessly tin ear for the politics of a critical region. And comparing Moseley-Braun's head-spinning testimony with the reality of her record on Nigeria, it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that she is still an international incident waiting to happen.

The Democrats have Jesse Helms' wild, odious racism to thank for delivering a nomination that otherwise would have deservedly stalled. But the fact remains that Carol Moseley-Braun's free ride to an ambassadorship is almost as much of a global embarrassment as Sen. Helms himself.

Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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