Thursday 19 September 2002

No more Mr Nice Guy

In the past few weeks Nelson Mandela has called America a 'threat to world peace' and lambasted Dick Cheney as a 'dinosaur'. That's not the sort of language you'd expect from the kindly old statesman who forgave his jailers. But he has always been misunderstood in the west. And now he's got something to be really angry about.

Say what you like about Nelson Mandela, but he is not a man known to bear a grudge or lose his temper easily. Having waited 27 years for his freedom, he emerged from jail to preach peace and reconciliation to a nation scarred by racism. When he finally made the transition from the world's most famous prisoner to the world's most respected statesman, he invited his former jailer to the inauguration.

So when he criticises US foreign policy in terms every bit as harsh as those he used to condemn apartheid, you know something is up. In the past few weeks, he has issued a "strong condemnation" of the US's attitude towards Iraq, lambasted vice-president Dick Cheney for being a "dinosaur" and accused the US of being "a threat to world peace".

Coming from other quarters, such criticisms would have been dismissed by both the White House and Downing Street as the words of appeasement, anti-Americanism or leftwing extremism. But Mandela is not just anyone. Towering like a moral colossus over the late 20th century, his voice carries an ethical weight like no other. He rode to power on a global wave of goodwill, left office when his five years were up and settled down to a life of elder statesmanship. So the belligerent tone he has adopted of late suggests one of two things; either that some thing is very wrong with the world, or that something is very wrong with Mandela.

What Mandela believes is wrong with the world is not difficult to fathom. He is annoyed at how the US is exploiting its overwhelming military might. Earlier this month, after President Bush would not take his calls, he spoke to secretary of state Colin Powell and then the president's father, asking the latter to discourage his son from attacking Iraq.

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