South Africa: Why Washington Is Being So Cautious

As commander-in-chief of Operation Desert Storm, George Bush played the swashbuckling role of the decisive world leader with panache. But now that his attention is turning to other world issues, a more familiar Bush persona is emerging--that of a cautious leader who prefers to tread carefully through foreign-policy minefields.

Consider his "softly, softly" approach to South Africa. The President viscerally opposes the economic sanctions on Pretoria that Congress forced upon President Reagan in 1986. But he has acquiesced because he has lacked the clout to make Congress ease up. The combination of his popularity surge and the crumbling of apartheid give him a chance to force an end to sanctions. Instead, he's playing it safe.

The 1986 law says sanctions should remain in place until Pretoria takes five specific steps to end apartheid. The Administration argues that actions so far, including the release of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, meet three of the conditions. South African President F. W. de Klerk could meet a fourth on Apr. 30, when he is expected to announce the release of all political prisoners. The remaining obstacle, the scrapping of all racial restrictions on land ownership and residency, may be tackled by July.

HANG-UP. State Dept. officials will soon sound out key members of Congress on the notion that four out of five is good enough to lift some sanctions. But there's a hang-up. Pretoria says it holds just 600 political prisoners, while black leaders say there are more like 3,000 behind bars. And antiapartheid groups dispute the claim that other conditions have been met fully. "When it comes to political prisoners, things will get dicey," admits one senior Administration official. "The President does not want to push anything prematurely." The Administration has some domestic reasons to move carefully. Bush's 1990 veto of a civil rights bill brought two years of improving relations with black leaders to an abrupt end. Moreover, Bush does not want to tempt a firestorm over South Africa just as the Administration is gearing up for what promises to be a bruising battle with Congress over authority to negotiate crucial trade agreements.

Bush's go-slow approach to lifting sanctions is sure to disappoint both South Africa's friends and foes on Capitol Hill. Conservatives want trade restrictions ended now. "It is time to reward the South African government for its reforms," says Representative William L. Dickinson (R-Ala.).

'POSITIVE.' But many House Democrats think the time has not yet come for a

rollback. "There has been some progress, but neither the letter nor the spirit of the requirements has been met," says House Majority Whip William H. Gray III (D-Pa.).

Congressional moderates, and even many liberals, are impressed with the steps de Klerk has taken to dismantle the 42-year-old apartheid system, and they would like a compromise. "What is taking place in South Africa is very positive," says Senator Paul Simon (D-Ill.), chairman of the African affairs subcommittee, who hopes that de Klerk will soon move far enough to justify ending all sanctions.

Bush's finger-to-the-wind approach, however, comes as a bitter blow to the GOP right, which has just begun to snuggle up to the President after his battlefield bravado. But as he has shown many times, George Bush understands the virtues of realpolitik and believes that he can get the best results by following his own foreign-policy compass.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.