NAIROBI — For now, Uhuru Kenyatta is the president-elect of Kenya. On Saturday, March 9, after a week of suspense following voting, he bested his main rival and former boss, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who's challenging the results in court (and now claims, without furnishing much evidence, that he won). This is causing a lot of handwringing among allies of Kenya's who make human rights a centerpiece of their foreign policies, because Kenyatta is facing trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC). In the violent wake of the last election, in 2007, ICC prosecutors allege, Kenyatta helped organize death squads.
Before this election, U.S. and European officials let out vague minatory noises about what would be done if Kenyatta won. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson warned, in what may have been the most embittering and most meaningless phrase of the campaign, that "choices have consequences." Kenyans have chosen. Now those consequences have to be defined. What they may entail, beyond making a point of not phoning Kenyatta to congratulate him, no one has said publically, but it's commonly agreed that the situation is unprecedented. The West has had to deal with reprobates already in power, but never has it suffered the anxiety of watching a man accused of crimes against humanity run for and then win the highest office in a friendly nation (and with British counsel). The journalist Steve Coll wrote in the New Yorker that "Kenyatta might well become the first democratically elected alleged criminal on that scale in history."
That's not entirely true. A quarter-century ago, the United States and Europe faced a similar diplomatic tribulation. This one, closer to home, involved Nazis. Peculiarly Mitteleuropean though it was in tone, it provides an instructive precedent for what might be called "The Kenyatta Affair."
In 1986, Kurt Waldheim ran for the presidency of Austria. Waldheim, who'd served as his country's foreign minister and then secretary general of the United Nations, was vain and unburdened by excessive intelligence (he once used his U.N. diplomatic pouch to send soft American toilet paper back to Europe) but otherwise seemed innocuous. Austrians, and most of the rest of the world, believed he came with a reasonably clean bill of history. Waldheim had always maintained that after Germany's 1938 annexation of Austria, he'd been conscripted into the army, sent to the eastern front, invalided by a grenade, discharged, and then returned to Vienna, where he sat out the remainder of hostilities studying law and rubbing his shattered ankle. He claimed he'd never even bothered to join the National Socialist party. (To see how well-practiced the story was, watch this 1974 television interview.)
But for years, rumors circulated that Waldheim was lying. In the U.N. archives sat a file, opened by its War Crime Commission in 1948, which said that Waldheim was connected with a massacre of prisoners in the Balkans and was wanted there for war crimes. The file was mysteriously closed when Waldheim considered running for a third term as secretary general in 1980. As he readied his presidential bid in Austria six years later, however, the file reappeared, along with other files from other archives indicating that Waldheim had not just been a Nazi, but one hell of a Nazi. He'd joined a Nazi youth organization three weeks after the Anschluss, then the Brownshirts, and then served on the staff of a general involved in the Final Solution, who was later hanged in Belgrade. In addition to the Balkans massacre, for which Waldheim was decorated, he was, the evidence indicated, involved in the deportations of Greek Jews.
The first people to connect the dots were Waldheim's opponents in Austria's Socialist party. They contacted a Vienna magazine, which printed the revelations. No one in Austria much cared. So the World Jewish Congress, an international advocacy organization, sent its general counsel to Vienna to investigate, and he brought his findings to the New York Times. Confronted by the paper, Waldheim slipped into the exculpatory-yet-incriminating ungrammar that would constitute his responses to the allegations for the rest of his life. "I regret these things most deeply," he told the reporter, and "it is really the first that I hear that such things happened."