Does anyone else have a sense of unreality about American reactions to the letter (here in pdf form) that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, sent George W. Bush? It's not only Bush and Condoleeza Rice who've completely and utterly missed the point, but even journalists are caught up in this distortion. In the New York Times:
State Department officials who read the letter suggested that it offered an interesting window into the mentality and thinking of Iran, especially because it seemed to reflect a inclination to dwell on myriad grievances of the past rather than on the problem at hand, namely Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program.The AP report gives this summary: "The document gives rare insight into a man who has largely been a mystery to the West, showing him as fixated on a long list of grievances against the United States and seeking to build on a shared faith in God."
Although American officials said they intended to use the letter to make the point that Iran deserved to be isolated internationally over its alleged intransigence over the nuclear issue, they seemed sobered by the letter's tone as an indication of the uphill battle to change attitudes in Tehran.
This is what passes for journalism? Do reporters apply the same standards to Western leaders—are they described as "fixated" on their agendas? Is Bush "fixated" on his counterfeit righteousness? Do commentators meekly accept that only the U.S. gets to define "the problem at hand"? But my first and main point is this: when you receive a letter, you deal with it on its own merits. OK, stick with me. After years of no genuine communication, you get an unexpected letter from a head of state whom you've described in unflattering terms and whose government is taking actions that make you uncomfortable. Wow, a perfect opportunity to (1) gain insights into the other leader's motivations, and (2) open a dialogue. Instead, the man whose actions and reactions inevitably color the world's view of our country chooses to insult the head of state of that other country, by not engaging courteously with the letter's contents, as befits one civilized head of state communicating with another, and by telling the world what topics that unexpected letter should have covered!
There's nothing wrong with Bush and Rice and Cheney wanting more information than that initial letter contained. That's why you reply! You politely ask for more! Is there nobody within the highest circles of our government who can even speak up for elementary good manners?
I see plenty in the Iranian president's letter that deserves reply—either in agreement or in disagreement. But to dismiss it as not addressing issues in the way that the addressee might have wished betrays the habitual rudeness that comes with a worldview completely distorted by imperial arrogance. How I've yearned for the U.S. leadership to move into the arena of world opinion and state our case against the accusations of radical Islam with courtesy and humility, but also with an intelligent presentation of our side of each controversy. Now, Ahmadinejad has thrown a softball right down the middle, a perfect opportunity to engage with that task in the court of world opinion, and we more or less give him the finger.
Another American political pastime: scolding the Russians. In our ceaseless efforts to tell the world how to be better Americans, our leaders have raised Russia-scolding to new levels of stupidity. Many times in the last two years I've readily stipulated that Vladimir Putin and his colleagues are power politicians who will (and in their view, given the challenges they face, must) grab every lever of power available to them. So much of what goes on in Russia is completely outside the control of the Kremlin. Russia is, after all, a country where people have centuries of experience saying whatever they need to please the powerful, and then doing pretty well what they want. Russia has severe deficiencies in Western-style due process, opportunities for corruption in elections and every other citizen-to-state transaction, and powerful grassroots forces that favor both unfettered individual initiative and a restoration of Stalinist-style dictatorship. But good hardheaded common sense is what most Russians are gifted with most of the time; why can't we put more effort into recognizing this?
Once we assume that (in the light of perceived national interest) common sense, the shortest point from A to B, is at least often the basis for Russia's policy decisions, then things begin to look different. Asking trading partners to forgo historic subsidies in favor of market prices is not necessarily the same as bullying those partners. Yes, the timing may smell, but if we look at the whole picture, subsidies (such as concessionary oil prices) may reflect a mutual congeniality that may long ago have been trashed by the other country. Russia may not always have taken the first step at alienation—think of that! If Ukraine or Georgia wish to assert a greater degree of national independence, how can they object if Russia makes reciprocal decisions?
The U.S. should be the last country to criticize Russia for the use of economic measures to signal pleasure or displeasure. Our attempt to strangle the Palestinian Authority financially is only the most recent example. The vindictive U.S. campaign to extend extraterritorial regulations on other countries' relations with Cuba, military sales to Venezuela, the exclusion of U.S. personnel from international courts, the string-pulling to line up a "coalition of the willing" for Iraq ... in sum, our country has played hardball on the international stage so often to line up allies and punish dissidents that the finger-wagging at Russia seems laughable.
Perhaps I sound one-sided, but the habits of imperial arrogance don't just cloud our leaders, they endanger all of us. It has become standard practice to assume that, in judging an act by Russia's government, there's never any more to the picture than the narrow slice we get, and it has become conventional wisdom that Russia has backslid on democratization and it is our job to monitor the slide.
I don't object at all to an honest, assertive analysis of Russia's failures to live up to its own constitution, its horrible mistakes in Chechnya, and, in general, its political and spiritual weaknesses, as long as that analysis presents the full picture including honest coverage of the options actually available to its leaders, and some clue as to whether the analyst actually has the Russian peoples' best interests at heart. I do object to analyses that measure Russia's worst realities against our best intentions, and completely fail to account for the ways our government has abandoned its own ideals. For example: Dick Cheney said a few days ago, concerning Russia,
Democracy starts with citizens casting their votes, but that is only the beginning. Elections must be fair, and regular, and truly competitive. . . . And election results must yield the voluntary and orderly transfer of power.The man who said all this was the co-beneficiary of the U.S. presidential "election" of 2000, in which scandalous irregularities, including the disenfranchisement of thousands of black voters, tipped the process into the lap of a biased and unprepared U.S. Supreme Court! Again, the habit of lecturing the world without fair comparisons with our own performances is another example of the decay in honesty and humility that comes with an imperial worldview.
Catching up on intriguing links:
- Janiva Magness, who has just headed up to the top of my list of awesome blues women, thanks to the exposure The Roadhouse gave her in two recent podcasts.
- Smith Eliot's newsletter, first of a new series. Keep us updated, Smith. Your work is amazing.
- Behind the Wall, a very promising online magazine originating in a wonderful collaboration between students at Ramallah Friends Schools and students in Michigan and Wisconsin, USA.
- Last but not least, the latest from the Tangaroa raft, 500 nautical miles into its journey across the Pacific.
- Saturday PS: Check Russian Blog's comments posted on May 9 for some eloquent reflections that show how engaging and persuasive our scolding of Russia can be.