The Kenyatta Affair

What Kenya and its allies can learn from Austria’s Nazi legacy.

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."

What transpired next still astounds. Waldheim's opponents assumed that their exposures would provoke international condemnation and force Waldheim to drop out of the race (the World Jewish Congress gave him three days to fold). They were half right. Countries from Canada to Britain got in a lather. But they underestimated Waldheim's glibness, and overestimated the national conscience. His opponents failed to appreciate that Austrians, Hitler's real Landsmänner, had never seen the point in the paroxysms of guilt suffered by his adopted countrymen the Germans. Many Austrian politicians of Waldheim's generation had been proud Nazis, some with more appalling résumés than his. The president of parliament, Friedrich Peter, had served in an S.S. extermination unit and had probably personally killed hundreds. As late as the 1980s, Austria was lousy with Hitler nostalgists. These weren't thugs in black nylon and crew-cuts, either, but everyday people, the satisfied children of historian Daniel Goldhagen's willing executioners, if not the executioners themselves. In 2010, I interviewed Neal Sher, who was at the time of the Waldheim Affair, as it came to be known, the chief prosecutor in the Office of Special Investigations, the U.S. Justice Department division that investigates war criminals. Sher recalled a pair of old Austrian women who, having seen his picture in the newspaper, approached him in a Vienna café. He smiled and greeted them. "Judenschweine!" they hissed back. 

Waldheim's campaign managers, on the other hand, understood Austria perfectly. Even while he denied the charges, they designed campaign posters that looked like National Socialist propaganda. They warned crowds of a Jewish plot emanating from New York. (At the same time, because of his years at the U.N., Waldheim chose as his campaign theme song "New York, New York.") It worked. The Socialists realized that every time they brought up the war, they didn't win voters, but lost them. Someone, maybe from Waldheim's campaign, maybe just a fed-up citizen, posted flyers announcing "We Austrians Will Vote For Whom We Want!"

Nor was the indignation limited to nationalists. In her account of the Waldheim Affair in the New Yorker, Jane Kramer recorded that the mother of the magazine journalist who exposed Waldheim -- a resistance fighter interred at Auschwitz -- actually voted for Waldheim, because "of the hypocrisy of the whole campaign" against him. Jews voted for Waldheim, too, including, probably, Bruno Kreisky, the popular chancellor who had included Holocaust-collaborators such as Peter in his government. Kreisky was the soul of pragmatism: if he excluded competent one-time Nazis from posts, he pointed out, he wouldn't have much to work with. Kreisky was also tired of hearing about the past, just as most Austrians, including Jews, were tired of hearing about the past -- just as most Kenyans are tired of it today. (And if they had to hear about it, they certainly didn't want to hear about it from the Americans, who in the late 1940s, it was well known, had recruited Nazis, including some prominent Austrians, to use against the Soviets.) No less than Nazi-hunter Simon Weisenthal came to Waldheim's defense.

Waldheim won the presidency handily. This presented a headache in Washington, which, it was easy to forget, he'd often gone out of his way to help. In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, he'd acted as a shuttle between Israel, Egypt, the White House, and the Kremlin (eliciting from Henry Kissinger the most un-Kissingerian sentence of his career: "Thank god for the United Nations"). In 1979, Waldheim had flown to Tehran to try to negotiate the release of American hostages, and for his troubles was abused by the Ayatollah's drudges.

Unluckily for him, however, World War II was an inviolable canon for then president Ronald Reagan. (Unlike Waldheim, he hadn't fought in it.) When the Justice Department reached its conclusions -- that Waldheim had "assisted or participated in the transfer of civilian prisoners to the SS for exploitation as slave labor, the mass deportation of civilians to concentration and death camps" and "the utilization of anti-Semitic propaganda; the mistreatment and execution of Allied prisoners; and reprisal executions of hostages and other civilians" -- Reagan, whose sense of humor was always undervalued, did two things: He sent Waldheim a congratulatory note on winning the election; then he added his name to a list of people barred from entering the United States.

It was the strongest international rebuke. Israel merely recalled its ambassador. Nevertheless, Moscow denounced the Washington-Zionist axis, as did Arab League nations; never particularly interested in Austria before, they now extended effusive invitations to Waldheim. Pope John Paul II not only met with Waldheim but, bizarrely, conferred on him a papal knighthood. He was followed by Vaclav Havel, who, as usual, stole the show. Invited by Waldheim to address the Salzburg Festival in 1990, the Czech president agreed, defying a tacit boycott of Austria by European leaders. Havel spoke on the redemptive powers of confronting one's past.

Waldheim died in 2007, never having come clean about his war record, even after more revelations emerged. Before expiring, he was, amazingly, invited to Israel. He went, and without actually telling the truth, apologized for not being more truthful.

What can Kenya's allies learn from the Waldheim Affair? One lesson is that diplomatic isolation makes a nation's internal neuroses worse, not better. After Waldheim, Austria went from being unremorseful about its history to aggressively conflicted. It twice elected Nazi apologist Jörg Haider to a governorship, and then imprisoned historian David Irving for denying the Holocaust. Something similar may already be coming to pass in Kenya, where, after inviting in scores of international observers and media organizations to cover the election, the government, unhappy with the coverage, is threatening to expel foreign journalists. (Uhuru Kenyatta has accused the British government of trying to deny him the election.)

Another lesson is that while a proud nation can endure its own shame, it won't abide the shame of others. That Kenya received $875 million in U.S. assistance in 2012 doesn't make Kenyans feel any more obliged to Washington's best hopes for them. Nor does the fact that Kenya is a signatory to the International Criminal Court, while the United States is not. After Carson made his remark about choices and consequences, there was much talk about the new Kenyan friendships with China and Russia. Kenyatta's sworn-enemy-turned-running-mate, William Ruto, who's facing charges at the ICC for backing the Kalenjin gangs that battled Kenyatta's Kikuyu gangs, responded to Carson by saying "We know that you have a stooge, a puppet. But now that you have realized your stooge is going nowhere, you have resorted to threats." He was referring to defeated Prime Minister Raila Odinga, and, though exaggerating for effect, he was essentially right. Odinga was the candidate of the West, as well as of the Kenyan intellectual classes, not just because he isn't indicted -- though, according to Kenyan reports, he probably should have been -- but because he represented, they felt, Kenyans' only chance to confront their past. Imprisoned and tortured in the 1980s for his efforts to reform Kenya, Odinga evokes the tragic strain in its history. He sees himself as an essential lump in the national throat, offering liberation through truth, if only Kenyans would agree to weep.

But most Kenyans don't want to weep. They want to forget the past, as this election shows, not confront it. They didn't care to hear, again, about the murders and evictions that accompanied the 2007 election, nor about the decades of grief that came before. Kramer wrote of Austrian Jews in the 1986 that they "liked the euphemistic surfaces of Austrian life," and the same can be said of Kenyans today. A nation of aspiring entrepreneurs (and, like Americans, lifestyle-aspirants in the ballot booth), they preferred to recall the theme of success in Kenyan history. Perhaps the most telling summary of this election that I heard was a ten-second FM radio service announcement that aired a few weeks before voting: "It's important the youth remember Kenya is a brand," the DJ purred, "a brand people are comfortable investing in." Nobody symbolizes the comforts of investment like Kenyatta, maybe the country's richest man, through little effort of his own. His family is the premier brand in Kenya.

What Kenyatta's foreign critics, like Waldheim's, failed to concede -- this may be the most valuable lesson -- is that countries will confront their pasts, or not, only on their own terms. In post-conflict societies, many public figures have blood on their hands. Kenyans are as aware of this now as Austrians once were. They can take it. What they don't want is sanctimony. They'd far rather see defiance, even if it entails a certain sadistic hypocrisy. So, like the Auschwitz survivors who voted for Waldheim, Kenyans who saw family and friends killed after the last election voted for Kenyatta, though they knew he may have ordered those deaths. No, because he may have ordered those deaths. He allied with Ruto not to avoid these dark imputations, but to drive them home. Though tribe was the watchword of this election, their alliance, and their victory, was nationalistic, not tribal -- just as Waldheim's was. Their unspoken but resounding message was this: Yes, we killed. We killed for you, for Kenya. And we'd kill again. It's the most seductive platform in politics.



If a Tree Falls in Baghdad…

Ten years after the Iraq war, almost everything in this country -- from security to its place in the region -- is still in play.

BAGHDAD — Before the war, even Baghdad's weather was a secret. CNN didn't list the Iraqi capital in its Middle East weather forecast -- it didn't really matter so much, I suppose, to international viewers switching channels in their hotel rooms. But after a decade of trade sanctions, Saddam Hussein's Iraq was desperate to be recognized by the West and the Information Ministry officials let me know they considered CNN's omission a deliberate snub. A few months later, and for years after, Baghdad's forecast would be of intense daily interest to hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Pre-war Iraq was one of the ultimate journalistic challenges. It was difficult to get into and even more difficult to determine any truth beyond the most obvious one -- that it was a dark place, full of extraordinarily resilient people. You got used to being followed, having your hotel room or house bugged, and your phone tapped. It was harder to get used to how easily foreigners could unwittingly get Iraqis into trouble. And almost impossible to imagine that covering Iraq could become even stranger than it already was.

As CNN's bureau chief, I had been expelled from Iraq a few months before the war, for what the Information Ministry termed increasingly hostile reporting. "We're not expelling you -- we're just asking you to leave," the director had explained. I'd been covering the country and living there for more than four years.

When the war came, every journalist who covered Iraq automatically became a war correspondent. Those of us employed by big news organizations dutifully flew to Britain for courses on how to put on chemical and biological weapons suits and gas masks. We stuffed backpacks with what our employers hoped might be an antidote to anthrax. And some of us wondered what we were supposed to do when there weren't enough gas masks to go around.

When the route into northern Iraq through Turkey slammed shut just before the war started, my CNN team went in through Iran, crossing into Iraq through its eastern border. For the next few weeks, we roamed around the shifting front lines with a satellite truck. There was almost nowhere we couldn't go. We ran cables into caves beneath a long-destroyed Kurdish village to talk to families hiding out there. We huddled against hillsides while the Iraqi army mortared the positions of U.S. Special Forces, who were calling in air strikes.

In some places, we were there before U.S. forces arrived. In Mosul, hours after the Iraqi army left and long before U.S. and Kurdish forces came in, the northern city belonged to gunmen and looters. We took cover behind our vehicles as the central bank was set on fire and people rushed through a hail of bullets with armloads of cash.

There was no government and no rules. "If you keep driving down this road, I'll shoot you," an American officer told us at night, near a northern airfield where U.S. forces were about to parachute in. We didn't really believe him. But the lack of order also worked in our favor: When the generals finally arrived, you could show up in the morning and fly around with them -- without a press officer hovering, trying to make sure you cleared the quotes.

That was nothing, though, compared to the free-for-all that was Baghdad in the first few weeks after the capital fell. Those of us who covered pre-war Iraq went from needing permission to film even a portrait of Saddam or an ordinary street corner to being able to go anywhere and talk to anyone. It was dizzying. Dozens of Iraqis turned up with implausible stories that turned out to be true . And many more that turned out to be false -- like the Iraqis peddling documents purporting to be nuclear secrets from the trunks of their cars.  

As the insurgency gained momentum, foreign journalists retreated. Many of us were embedded with U.S. forces, and we saw firsthand what happens when you invade a country you don't understand. Both to the country itself and the soldiers sent to war there.

If you accept the risk, covering war on the frontlines is easy, in a sense. In Fallujah, the soldiers and Marines we were with made no attempt to keep us from seeing the bodies of civilians or the charred aftermath of a missile strike. They didn't have time for it. The disinformation happened in the briefing rooms and press conferences, where we were told that the United States didn't track casualties or that violence was worse under Saddam Hussein. (Neither point was true.)

When the United States handed over full sovereignty to Iraq by withdrawing its troops from the cities in 2009, it seemed to believe it was given a get-out-of-jail-free card in terms of public accountability. The United States had led an invasion, toppled a dictator, and spent tens of billions of dollars trying to repair the damage, but almost every awkward question -- whether about torture in Iraqi prisons or abuses by U.S.-trained Iraqi forces -- was answered with "it's a sovereign country now."

As the United States pulled back, so did the foreign press corps. Ten years after the start of the war that transformed the region, there are fewer than a dozen foreign journalists based in Iraq. Although there are endless stories, reporting from Iraq is still expensive, still dangerous, and only getting more difficult. 

We aren't the targets anymore. Most journalists, or the organizations they work for, have traded in their high-profile armored cars. In a city where we used to have to crouch on the floor to avoid gunfire on the airport road, we now drive around with the windows open. But there's still the significant risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when a bomb goes off -- whether that's a market on a Friday morning or the falafel stand near the entrance to the Green Zone.

The Iraqi government is drawing inward. Like most countries in the Middle East, this has never been one that recognizes that Western journalists are just journalists -- and not covert agents trying to destabilize the government. Some Iraqi officials today are as wary of the press as their pre-war counterparts.

Television is particularly difficult. With almost every bombing, the government imposes a new layer of regulations. Police and soldiers who used to talk freely now need permission from the Interior or Defense Ministry. Being allowed into a press conference at the prime minister's office involves handing over your watch as well as your pen and notepad. Tape recorders are completely out of the question.

Even entering the parliament building now requires prior written permission, and both cosmetics and over-the-counter drugs are considered a security risk and confiscated at the entrance. Once you get in the building, parliamentary session themselves still aren't open to the media. The press gallery was closed years ago, "for security reasons," and the only recordings of proceedings are an edited, delayed television feed.

For the first time since the Saddam era, there are official travel restrictions. The government recently announced that foreign journalists need prior Iraqi Army permission to travel to the restive Anbar Province, where Sunni protesters have been staging regular demonstrations against the government. Journalists for foreign news organizations trying to cover the ongoing protests have been stopped at Iraqi Army checkpoints. Some have been arrested.

The United States seems to have finally succeeded in doing what it wanted to do here -- becoming so low-profile that it is essentially invisible. Press releases announcing events that have already taken place or condemning the latest bombings occasionally make their way from the U.S. embassy in the Green Zone to the outside world. As far as most Iraqis are aware, that is the extent of the U.S. presence in their country.

Almost everything in Iraq is still in play: It's a country where you can find online restaurant reviews alongside travel warnings. The big questions here -- about security, the political balance of power, Iraq's place in the region -- remain unanswered.

People, even editors, think they've heard all the stories there are to tell about Iraq. They are so wrong. This is one of the most powerful, fastest-growing countries in the region. Almost every Iraqi has an amazing story. It's a nation of survivors in a country on the rollercoaster ride of history -- reinventing itself every day.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images