Barring any last minute court intervention, it appears Uhuru Kenyatta, the deputy prime minister, will be sworn in as the elected president of Kenya. Kenyatta is the son of the country’s founding first president Jomo Kenyatta. He is also an indicted suspect for crimes against humanity, for his role in Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence that left more than a thousand people dead and tens of thousands displaced.
Kenyans chose Kenyatta, by a sliver of the popular vote, despite – or perhaps because of – the indictment before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and the vow by many Western countries, including the U.S., to avoid all but “essential” contact with Kenyatta if he became president. Kenyatta’s running mate, William Ruto, has also been indicted.
So the Obama administration and European governments now face a dilemma; whether or not to continue business as usual with an indicted ICC suspect in charge of a strategically important East African country that has become a vital bastion of stability in a turbulent region, and a pivotal U.S. ally in the war on terror. Will pragmatism once against trump principle?
The first question is how the trial – now scheduled for later this summer -- can proceed, if it does at all. The case was called into question when charges were dropped against one of Kenyatta’s accused co-conspirators. Kenyatta has insisted he is innocent, and pledged to cooperate with the ICC. Does that mean he will be running Kenya while sitting in the dock in The Hague?
“It’s going to pose a very awkward situation, both for Kenya and the international community,” said Joel Barkan, a political science professor who wrote a report about Kenya’s election violence for the Council on Foreign Relations.
Barkan recently spoke on a conference call for reporters and others along with former assistant secretary of state for Africa, Jendayi Frazer. They both deemed ill-timed the pre-election warning by Johnnie Carson, the current assistant secretary, that “decisions have consequences” – which some interpreted as the U.S. trying to meddle in Kenya’s election. Frazer called Carson’s remark “an unfortunate policy statement.”
“American policy will be pragmatic because it has no choice but to be pragmatic given Kenya's importance to our regional interests and our ability to carry out those regional interests,” Frazer said. “In other words, Kenyatta knows that he needs the United States and the United States knows it needs Kenya.”
We’ve been down this path before. The question of whether to deal with a leader we find unsavory – even one accused of crimes against humanity – is one the U.S. has been forced to address, and finesse, many times before. And in most cases, pragmatism wins out over principle.
What may matter most is if the country is small, with little or no strategic importance, and the leader one we can afford to ignore. I recall in the late 1980s, Kurt Waldheim, the former U.N. secretary general, was running for president of his native Austria, when reports surfaced that he played a larger role than previously acknowledged in Nazi war crimes in Greece while he was a German Wehrmacht officer from 1938-‘45. Waldheim and his wife Elisabeth were blacklisted by the State Department and banned from traveling to the United States during his presidency, which ended in 1992.
That year, 1992, I was in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, when the militia of warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed launched a series of guerilla attacks against Pakistani U.N. peacekeepers in the capital, killing 24 of them. The U.N., after a hastily called weekend session, rushed through an arrest warrant for Aideed, and the U.S, put a $25,000 bounty on the warlord’s head. The Somali operation descended into bloody street fighting, culminating in the “Blackhawk Down” incident. The arrest warrant was rescinded, Aideed held a triumphant rally in the capital, and we made peace with the warlord in order to protect our military withdrawal from Somalia.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was the first sitting president indicted for crimes against humanity, for the atrocities that occurred in the Darfur region. But he’s been able to fly around Africa with abandon, and got the full red carpet treatment in 2011 when he made an official visit to Beijing and met with President Hu Jintao and other top Chinese leaders. The U.S. has said it wants to improve its long troubled relationship with Sudan, the ICC indictment, it appears, notwithstanding.
I also recall the 1988 People Power protests in Burma, and the 8/8/88 crackdown that left at least 3,000 people dead and a new State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in charge of the country. The U.S. quickly moved to impose sanctions and downgrade diplomatic relations.
But the following year, when Chinese troops opened fire on student protesters at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, killing hundreds, President George H.W. Bush soon secretly dispatched his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, to Beijing to normalize relations with China’s Communist rulers.
I recall asking a U.S. ambassador in Asia back then why the discrepancy – why did the U.S. race to mend ties with Beijing after the Tiananmen massacre, while putting relations with Burma’s butchers in deep freeze?
He replied; “In Burma, we have the luxury of living up to our principles.”
Uhuru Kenyatta should consider himself lucky that Kenya has strategic importance.