What would Ralph Bunche do?
It's a question I have been pondering as the violence in the Middle East continues unabated and unmediated. It's natural to think of Bunche, the renowned American diplomat who helped broker a truce between Arabs and Israelis in 1949 — when mere coexistence, much less a truce, seemed almost impossible.
My reflections on Bunche, however, were prompted not so much by the state of things half a world away as by the annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival in L.A. Bunche was a product of L.A.'s historically black Central Avenue/Eastside neighborhood, which nurtured not only jazz but ambition of all kinds. And Bunche did the neighborhood proud, earning a doctorate in government and international relations at Harvard, helping to create the United Nations and winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 — the first black man to receive the award.
Bunche was an unabashed peace activist whose sense of mission was fueled in part by the times — after World War II, the United States was not eager for more bloodshed — and in part by his own experience with the psychological and actual violence that attends the black American experience. And what would Bunche, who died in 1971, think now about the new prominence of African Americans in statesmanship?
No doubt the famously eloquent statesman would be speechless. Speechless that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who owes so much to his legacy, flouts it routinely. The nation she represents now prefers war, including preemptive war, as the most reasonable path to peace. The very word "peace" — like "love" and "community" and "evil" — has been rubberized by postmodernist spin doctors, including Rice, stretched to the point where it has no moral content.
Bunche would undoubtedly be pleased and then distressed to learn that Rice is the second African American secretary of State in six years. This is progress for the race in appearance only, and progress for the world not at all. Rice was preceded by Colin Powell, a military man who knows firsthand the agonies of war, yet who stood before the United Nations in 2003 and sold it on an Iraq invasion with information now widely acknowledged as bogus.
Bunche would certainly be dismayed that these African Americans have become the faces of American aggression rather than diplomacy. And though, as a political scientist and a scholar of race relations, Bunche may well have understood the choices Rice and Powell were forced to make to remain viable in the Bush administration, he would almost certainly not have condoned those choices.
So what would Ralph Bunche do? If he could talk to Powell and Rice today, what would he say?
First, he would have told Powell to resign from his history-making position rather than sell a dangerous war he didn't believe in — that's history nobody wants to make.
To Rice, his advice might go something like this: Ask yourself how much of your worldview is dictated by President Bush, to whom you are famously loyal, and how much is driven by an ideology formed by an education and career almost as impressive as mine. You have every right to be conservative. But if it is a conservatism that sanctions conflict and spurns resolution, perhaps you ought not be secretary of State.
I know, Bunche might say, that the Bush administration's diplomatic style is to be confrontational (just look at U.N. ambassador and master antagonizer John Bolton). But as an African American, whose ranks are still minuscule in the foreign policy business, you have a particular responsibility to try to make a difference. In that sense you — and Powell, and whoever else comes along — are in the same pioneering place I was 60 years ago.
Bunche has been largely forgotten by history. Certainly it isn't convenient for the powers that be, black and otherwise, to remember him right now. But the forgetting probably goes deeper than that. It was only after many years of neglect and disrepair that Bunche's modest childhood home off Central Avenue was restored and preserved as a museum and community center. Whether the preservation lives on in farther-away places is an open question.
© 2006 The Los Angeles Times