There is something to like about Idi Amin, but it is not his vile nature or his gift for butchery. It is the way he confounds our foreign-policy assumptions and cliches and makes us think about things we'd just as soon forget.
Not that it hasn't of mine was saying the other day that he was troubled by the speed and glee with which a lot of people seemed to be jumping on Amin, the supposition being that Amin had provided them a chance to vent a little racism. I thought the thing had been working the other way around - that people had taken an unconscionable legth of time to find their voices and their anger, and that even now you could sense that some wer downright miserable to be opposing a black African leader. I lay this to the strength for those foreign-policy cliches Amin had shaken. We have our diagram of the world - but Idi Amin won't stay in the place we have marked out for him.
Actually, of course, it has not been marked out for him individually, but rather for black Africa as a whole. And that is the problem. Never mind for the moment that there ara genuine racist overtones to this great lumping together of millions on inhabitants of a continent, or that there is something truly condescending about the way one is meant to refrain from criticism of African leaders no matter what they do. The point is that the category in to which we tried to stuff Amin was thought to be capacious enough to hold anyone who might turn up on the black African political scene.
It was an all-purpose stereotype of the African politicians, and it came with its own handy packet of prefab motivations for use in explaining away whatevet the politicianm might do: anti-colonialism, racial pride, a just and understandable impatience to transform the econimic lot of his nation and a corresponding determination to get something back from those capitalist countries that had been exploiting his continent over the centuries. That a Marxist view of history would be attractive to such people - at least in broad outline - went withour saying; it was in fact required evidence of their social seriousness. Likewise, military rough stuff and autocracy at the top were regarded ast he inevitable and acceptable price those countries would have to pay for improving domestic conditions in a hurry.
Idi Amin got the good of this stereotype well beyond the point wher the evidence of our senses - not to mention our moral sensibilities - should have told us otherwise. Yes, our government withdrew its diplomats form Kampala; and, no, people were not xactly lionizing him - but the reluctance to see him as he really was lingered on. Specifically, after Amin had kicked tens of thousands of Asian out of UGans in 1972, horror at the event was neutralized by a lot of patronizing explanations about how your had to understand what bloodsuckers the Asians had been in African commerce. Amin had to do more than that - speaking in his garbled Marxist jargon, mindlessly wrecking his country's economic base and social promise, eviscerating thousands upon thousands of his black African compatriots, instituting a reign of terror and gore - before he got free, once and for all, of the stereotype.
He pushed so hard in the pst several weeks that he finally broke the credulity of even the most self-deceiving among us. In fact, he went so far that he actually rended inoperative those familiar incantations that are usually heard at just this point in any of our foreign-policy disputes - i.e., given our own sorry record of crimes and failings, who are we to criticize? But that is not the most important thing he's done in terms of disrupting our conventional and convenient made of thinking about foreign affairs. The most important thing he's done is to make it indisputably plain that he is real. He is willful, capricious, individual, cruel, inpredictable - and always there, always a force, always moving.
The implications of this for our internal debates on foreign policy are horrendous. That is because our debates are, to an amazing degree, premised on the assumption that we alone are real. For better or for worse, whether we are said to be "losing" this country or alienating that leader or acting in a way that is bound to make that bloc think thus-and-such, we invaribly emerge (in our own meditations) as the only agents and doers in the world. All else is reaction- and predictable, not to say manageable, reaction at that.
This premise is not in dispute between right and left or any of the other contending forces in our policy arguments. What is in dispute is simply which set of stereotypes best represents the people in the world and which set of prescriptions is the right one to get them to behave in a manner we find agreeable. That they will respond correctly to some set of blandishments and pressures is not even open to question in most of our national discourse. The carrot versus the stick, hearts and minds versus a whiff of the grape: one school holds that every cranky and/or positively hostile leader got that way because of some failure of Americn generosity or understanding, the other holds he got that way because we let him "get away" with it and didn'd give him a good sharp crack on the snout in time. But neither seems to doubt that our acts are controlling.
There being no room in these formulations for foreigners to express will, purpose, passion or plain quirkiness, it is hardly surprising that our landscape is strewn with the ruins of expectations based on them. Some of us are old enough to remember both the reasons why the Chinese would not go into Korea and the reasons why they would not make nuclear bombs - good reasoning, too,exvept that it was our reasoning, not theirs. There were equally persuasive arguments put forward as to why the Russians wouldn't engage in the kind or arms buildup going on now and why they wouldn't dare more on Prague. There was going to be a blood bath in Saigon after the war. But the Khmer Rouge -well, they were Cambodians, after all, gentle folk . . . just as Idi Amin was striving African nationalist.
When you get right down to it, the trouble with foreign policy is these damned foreigners - they keep intruding on our national reveries, crashing into our scholastic debates, reminding us that there is no diagram or cliche-loaded scheme that can account for all foreign behavior, top up the moral rights and wrongs and provide a mechanism for making folks behave in acceptable ways. Give Idi Amin that: he is telling us something we need to know and it won't be his fault if we don't learn it. He is doing his brutal best.