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.