The uglier aspects of capitalism are removed from history as it is written by people who have succeeded in corporately driven universities and media outlets. So, it is helpful, as we try to make sense of foreign policy, to move back in time and read the actual words spoken at the time of historical events and not to trust modern redactions.

When we try to understand why the US has a certain policy, say toward the Palestinians or Venezuelans, we might first ask, “why did we actually support South African apartheid? What was the propaganda used to sell such an immoral policy to the American people?” The reasons and the propaganda may be surprisingly similar.

Back when the U.S. was supporting South Africa, the policy was called “constructive engagement.” The argument went like this, “poor nations need US businesses to help build their own economies, so working with tyrants is better for the people in the long run than boycotts which will hurt the poor most of all.”

Margaret Thatcher was a great proponent of the policy of constructive engagement:

“I think a policy of sanctions would harm the very people in South Africa you are trying to help…I agree with a policy of trying to influence South Africa by other means. The present Government is moving forward in the direction we wish them to go, faster than any other. Sanctions will harm, not help.”

It was an effective argument at the time, but some saw through it, like MIT professor John E. Parsons:

“US corporations continue to operate in South Africa because it is profitable. Apartheid makes it very profitable. These corporations pay millions of dollars in taxes which pay for the police, prisons, weapons, and armaments that maintain the apartheid system. They sell the government its armored personnel carriers, its computers and communications technologies. Westinghouse has sold South Africa several licenses for the manufacture of nuclear power facilities. And every US industrial facility is integrated into the civil defense plans of the South African government…includ[ing] turning over its facilities for military production at the direction of the South African government. That’s “constructive engagement.” Perhaps we should try disinvestment.”

Looking back, no one takes the Reagan/Thatcher argument for constructive engagement at face value. We now know the point was for corporations to make as much money as possible. U.S., English and Israeli businesses profited obscenely from the oppression of the South African people, so Reagan and Thatcher speeches were merely infomercials for exploitation by Western corporations of the South African people.

As we move back to the present moment we must keep that same discernment. We must remember that every US president, no matter how charming, probably got to the top by lobbying for corporations and probably for weapons makers. His or her job is not only to lead our nation, but also to convince us of policies demanded by his or her corporate sponsors.

So when the president comes up with good reasons not to support a democratic election in Venezuela or the statehood of the Palestinian people, we must assume that presidential appeals to “constructive engagement” are usually disingenuous. If the people themselves cry for freedom, we have no right to sell them out for their own good.