Dealing with Iran: Two Approaches
Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in the New York this week. The occasion is the opening of the new session of the UN General Assembly. As the president of his country, Ahmadinejad was one of the heads of state who attended and offered an address to the assembly. The U.S. reaction and alternatives to it speak volumes about how and how not to run foreign policy.
In case you missed Ahmadinejad’s speech, you did not miss much. It combined bromides with the ritual denunciation of the United States and other “bullies” into the affairs of other states–i.e. Iran. It was pure boiler plate intended primarily for viewing back home, and should have been treated as such.
Unless they watched it on television, the Bush administration’s representatives to the General Assembly could not know that, because they were prominently absent. To accentuate the point, CNN cameras occasionally panned to the American delegation’s place in the hall; all one could see were empty seats. The statement being made was clear: “We do not approve of you, Mr. President, and so we are not going to dignify you by being present.” The adjectives that come to mind to describe this display include churlish, childish and stupid, but then, this is the Bush administration we are talking about. This is the Axis of Evil we’re dealing with here, so let’s not soil ourselves with diplomatic civilities. Talking with adversaries is a sign of weakness; threatening to bomb them is the only thing they will understand.
This approach contrast with a speech Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden gave in Ohio this morning. Among the messages that Biden had was that talking to your adversaries was not a sign of weakness and irresolution, but rather was a sign of willingness to try to settle differences peacefully. As he reminded his audience, when one begins to talk to adversaries like the Iranians (whom he mentioned by name), one does not forfeit the right to say “no” to them if that is appropriate. Rather, he maintained, ignoring/snubbing your adversaries, as the United States did at the UN, only reinforces their anti-Americanism and strengthens the position of those we oppose (like Ahmadinejad).
John McCain has shown tendencies that are frighteningly similar to the instincts that told the Bush administration to boycott the Ahmadinejad speech. When the economy started going south, he reacted (in George Will’s analogy) like the Queen of Hearts, shouting “Off with their heads” about the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and suddenly became Jean Valjeans mounting the barricades of the Paris Commune in support of working people and in opposition to the Wall Street fat cats (whom we used to call Republicans) who had caused the mess. It was not a cool-headed response, which is what one would hope for in the relations between the United States and Iran, a country with which this country must deal with on issues as fundamental as nuclear weapons and post-war Iraq. What should we do: talk to them, or march out of the room? Talking may not succeed, but it is hard to understand how turning your back on those with whom you disagree can succeed.