Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

27 September 2007

Ahmadinejad Speaks?

When Charlie Rose begins to sound and act like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, you know that something strange is going on. That’s what happened the night he “interviewed” President Ahmadinejad of Iran.

I put “interviewed” in quotes because Rose acted nothing like his normal self. You can tell when he likes and respects his guests: he lets them do most of the talking. The more he disagrees or is bored with a guest, the more he interrupts and blusters.

By the time I turned my TV off in disgust, Rose was preaching to Ahmadinejad—an elected leader of a sovereign nation—as if he were an errant school boy. Rose had completely lost his cool, let alone any semblance of the masterful interviewer he once was.

Like it or not, Ahmadinejad is an important figure on the world stage. I want to know what he thinks, what he knows, how he thinks, and what motivates him. I want to know whether it was his idea to do the “talk show” circuit here, or whether his boss (Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei) ordered him to do so.

Everything we can learn about this man, both good and bad, might help us make peace, avoid war, or make war less painful if it comes. The first rule in any conflict is “know thy enemy.”

God knows we can’t rely on our current leadership to judge Ahmadinejad astutely, or even objectively. So we all ought to get to know this man and judge him for ourselves.

Maybe Rose is getting senile. But as far as I can tell, his interview was a just metaphor for Ahmadinejad’s entire experience in our country. We lectured Ahmadinejad. We reviled him. We cursed him. We preached to him. We insulted him. Very few of us ever bothered to listen to him, let alone to pose the kind of subtle and delicate question that might get him to reveal more about himself and his policies than he had come prepared to reveal.

Although I abhor what I have read about some of Ahmadinejad’s speeches, I felt a grudging personal respect for this enigmatic, diminutive man. Here he came, right into the lion’s den. He was speaking to people who still had his slogans “Death to America” and “The Great Satan” ringing in their ears. Yet he remained cool and calm, while everyone around him tripped over themselves in anger, frustration and self-righteousness. His performance was impressive, while ours was an embarrassment and a collective national shame.

At the risk of further eroding my anonymity, I have to reveal that I am of Jewish descent, for the point is relevant in this context. I’m assimilated, and all of my immediate relatives were lucky enough to leave Europe before the Nazis’ über-pogrom began. So I have less direct experience of the Holocaust than many. But I think I understand the revulsion felt by Jews and non-Jews alike when anyone denies its reality. Playing fast and loose with history never leads to anything good.

Unfortunately, Ahmadinejad is not the only one to play fast and loose with history. Japan’s leaders have never come to grips with Japan’s wartime atrocities in China and Korea. The Turks have never acknowledged their genocide in Armenia. Yet we have perfectly cordial relations with both Japan and Turkey. Russia still considers its brutal half-century domination of Eastern Europe as a variant of normal relations with one’s neighbors, but its fantastic view in that regard hardly figures in our complex relationship with our erstwhile rival.

These three countries perpetrated the horrors they deny or ignore. The Holocaust is nothing of Iran’s doing.

Could it be that we ourselves have also played a game of historical amnesia? We used power politics and our dominant postwar position to install a friendly despot in Iran. That despot ruled Iran for two decades, imposing a foreign culture and foreign values on a proud people with an ancient history.

When the inevitable reaction came, very few lives were lost. But we were so aghast at Iran’s temerity in choosing its own destiny—and taking our hostages—that we put it on our blacklist. We openly supported Saddam in his eight-year senseless war with Iran, just to cut it down to size.

In that war, over a million people perished on both sides. Think about that. Iran’s population today is about 70 million. If you assume that Iran incurred about half the losses in that senseless war, a comparable proportional loss of our population would be over two million people.

Now suppose that a foreign country had subverted our government and installed a puppet, whom we took twenty years to remove. Then suppose that that same country had openly encouraged Mexico to wage war on us, perhaps with innovative biological weapons. Suppose further that we lost two million people in that war, which accomplished nothing but filled graves on both sides.

Suppose that that costly war is still fresh in the minds of many living today. Finally, suppose that that same inimical foreign country had the power—as we do over Iran with our nuclear submarines—to eradicate us utterly in fifteen minutes. Don’t you think our foreign policy toward that country might be a bit irrational, governed by fear, hatred and loathing?

I have often wondered what would happen if our national leaders apologized to Iran and its people for the horrors we have visited upon them. Could we contain our anger at a single Iranian leader’s denial of horrors that neither he nor his country caused, at least long enough to recognize the horrors that we have directly caused Iran?

An apology costs nothing. Colin Powell knows that. His apology to China in the 2001 spy-plane incident averted what could have been a new Cold War. It cemented what has become a rocky but cooperative and profitable relationship.

Apologizing to Iran wouldn’t mean letting our guard down. I am on record on this blog as favoring limited military deterrence of Iran if it seeks to build aggressive weaponry, including nukes. But you can apologize while building up your unmanned air power, keeping it ready if needed to destroy Iran’s missile factories and nuclear weapons plants.

What an apology would do is show our humanity. It might even give Iran’s leaders a reason to suspect that, for the first time in half a century, we are begrudgingly willing, within limits, to let this proud and ancient people go their own way in the world.

Apologizing would be such a simple, costless, human act. It would put Iranian leaders on the spot to show their humanity, too. Otherwise, they would risk justifying an international impression that they are aggressors after all. It would be such a surprising and welcome act that it might even restore some of the moral authority that George W. Bush has squandered so recklessly.

I can only imagine one candidate for our presidency having the brains and humanity to conceive of, let alone perform, such an act, along with the toughness to do what is necessary if things turn sour. In the meantime, we shout at, berate, and insult the diminutive Ahmadinejad, proving that you can have all the free speech you want but still not be civilized.

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