President Lula da Silva has come under fire from opponents lately for refusing to join the United States' campaign for increased sanctions against Iran. Washington recently switched from a brief phase of "engagement" with Iran over its nuclear program to the more aggressive posture of threats and confrontation that had been the strategy of the Bush Administration. Lula has argued that this is counter-productive.
Sao Paulo Governor Jose Serra's recent op-ed summarizes the arguments against Lula. He attacks Lula for receiving President Ahmadinejad of Iran, saying his election was "notoriously fraudulent," his government is repressive, and he is a Holocaust denier. Actually the first charge is extremely implausible, as anyone who has looked at the evidence knows. The margin of victory in that election was eleven million votes, and there were hundreds of thousands of witnesses to the vote count at the precinct level. The results were also consistent with both pre-election and post-election polling.
The Iranian government is certainly repressive; although arguably no more so than U.S. allies such as Egypt, which has lately been arresting hundreds of opposition activists and candidates in order to keep them out of the fall election. And Lula has strongly condemned Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust.
Should Lula refuse to meet with Hillary Clinton, who strongly supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq? This completely unnecessary war has killed more than a million people, according to the best estimates. That is also a crime, as are the continued killings of civilians in Afghanistan by U.S. forces.
Lula meets with all sides to the dispute because he is trying to play a mediating role, and to prevent another unnecessary war. That is what mediators do. The Obama team, like that of President George W. Bush, has trouble understanding this concept. They have a "Godfather" approach to international relations: "We will make you an offer you can't refuse."
Lula has an opposite approach, which may come from his experience as a trade union leader: He looks for dialogue, negotiation, and compromise to resolve conflict.
Serra also attacks Lula for refusing to recognize the government of Honduras, which was elected under a dictatorship, while meeting with Ahmadinejad. But the two situations are not comparable: The military overthrow of Honduras' elected government is a threat to democracy in all of Latin America; Iran is not. Brazil cannot influence the internal politics of Iran; whereas Latin America has regional agreements and policy co-ordination that can support democracy and prevent further military coups in the hemisphere. The only common theme here is that Lula is refusing to surrender to Washington's foreign policy priorities.
The pundits could not foresee that the Workers' Party, bringing a former factory worker to the presidency, would have advanced Brazil farther than any prior government as a leader on the world diplomatic stage. But Lula has become one of the most respected leaders in the world, and therefore has unique potential to help resolve some of the world's most serious political conflicts.
It was predictable that Lula would take heat for standing up to the U.S.; once Washington begins a campaign against a demonized government, the vast majority of the international media jumps on the bandwagon, and anyone who gets in the way of it will pay a price. This is true regardless of whether the government is a repressive theocracy, like Iran, or a democracy such as Venezuela or Honduras before the June coup. Lula has taken a principled position in all of these cases, and one that is in the best interests of not only Brazil but of humanity. We citizens of the United States particularly appreciate his efforts to help keep us out of another senseless war, as our own civil society and democratic institutions have too often not been strong enough to do so.
The world needs this kind of leadership - badly.
This column was published by Folha de Sao Paulo on March 24, 2010.