- The Washington Times - Friday, September 7, 2001

So, the United States is getting criticized for walking out of the United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa? Look who's talking.

Among our critics, for example, was the representative from Zimbabwe.

This is a country, it is important to note, whose president, Robert Mugabe, sent troops assisted by North Korea to slaughter thousands of ethnic-minority Matabele in his own land in the early 1980s a few years after he came to power.

Most regrettably, he got away with it. The world mostly looked the other way. One big reason: People wanted Zimbabwe, formerly the breakaway British colony of Rhodesia, to succeed so as to encourage its larger and more important neighbor South Africa to end its apartheid system.

More recently, as Mr. Mugabe clings to power against growing opposition, he has played the race card to use white farmers as scapegoats for his once-prosperous country's economic woes.

Yet, Mr. Mugabe's mouthpiece has the gall to denounce the United States for allegedly shirking its duties. The U.N. conference on racism should have been denouncing Mr. Mugabe.

Such is the nature of many of our critics. The United States and Israel pulled out in a dispute over anti-Israeli language in a draft document the conference was debating. Egypt, Syria and Iran led other Arab and Islamic states in insisting on harsh language that, among other jabs, described the Zionist movement as "based on racial superiority."

Iran's Islamic fundamentalist government knows about tolerance. Women there are jailed or beaten if they do something uppity like walk unescorted on the street or appear in public without being covered from head to toe.

And just try to give away Bibles in Afghanistan. Preaching a non-Islamic faith will get you jailed if you're a visitor and executed if you're a citizen.

And how about Sudan? Non-Arab and non-Muslim civilians in the country's war-torn southern regions continue to be captured and sold into slavery, largely to Arab buyers in the Persian Gulf region.

Nor did the United Nations rush to condemn the imprudence of Moammar Gadhafi when he urged Africans to drive white people "back to Europe" earlier this year.

Such is the diversity of leaders with whom we Americans find ourselves dealing in the international arena. They didn't write the book on intolerance, but some of them write new sequels every day. That does not mean we shouldn't deal with them. It merely means we need to be aware of whom we are dealing with and act accordingly.

The World Conference Against Racism was organized to come up with recommendations for new initiatives to counter a long list of abuses. They include racism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, discrimination against low-caste Hindus and prejudice in Western Europe against migrants and refugees.

Like AIDS, these are important problems to rally the world against. Unlike AIDS, they are not easily defined. Every country defines race and racism differently. This is how some countries that are non-democratic homelands for Islam somehow manage to stand with a straight face and condemn Israel for founding a democratic homeland for the Jews. Hey, guys, you can't have it both ways.

Jesse Jackson and other critics of the pullout say the anti-Israel language was merely a convenient excuse for the Bush administration to dodge touchier issues closer to home, like reparations for slavery.

If so, the Bush administration is hardly alone in its reluctance to bite into that hornet's nest. Some black Africans are reluctant, too.

Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade, for example, noted with remarkable candor that slavery was an equal-opportunity industry. Just about every country in the world has practiced it, included some of Mr. Wade's own ancestors.

True enough. Questions of race and history are seldom as simple as black and white. That's why, despite the absurd positions taken by some of our foreign critics, it is regrettable that the Bush administration chose to withdraw rather than to argue.

If anyone could argue America's positions on racism, ethnicity and prejudice with moral authority, it is this nation's first black secretary of state.

As a visible symbol of the opportunities America offers, despite its lingering divisions over race, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell doesn't even have to speak to deliver an important message. His position in this nation's top national security post says: Yes, this country has problems with race and prejudice like the rest of the world does; but, unlike too many other countries, Americans are making progress.

Our progress, as long as we keep making it, has a lot to teach the world, if it is willing to listen.

Unfortunately, it's hard for the world to listen, unless we are willing to talk.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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