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The Shrewd Little Gentleman

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by Richard Stern

What did we think, that the world's presidents and prime ministers (many democratically elected) would conform to our notions of how they should perform? Thank God the United Nations gives these supposed mountebanks and arch villains space for their dramatic expressions of themselves and their place in the great world. Our president speaks to the world "as if he owns it," in Chávez's milder words. As for the wily, tiny, well-educated and proud descendant of Darius (the entitlement about as merited as our president's descent from Washington--of whom, incidentally, he has claimed to have recently read three biographies), the shrewd little Iranian has sufficient history to know that nations decline and fall as well as grow and prosper. Born decades after World War II, he asks why the world should still be governed by its victors. Iran is rich and getting oil-richer, its scientists are savvy enough to produce nuclear fuel and--why not?--the nuclear weapon which the old dominators and their protégés have. Who are the United States and Britain to tell the new Iran what they should have? Chávez and Ahmadinejad are first-rate performers. They didn't get elected because of their good looks or humble ways. It's time to stop talking about ignoring them or--as our good secretary of state said today--not "dignifying what they said with an answer."

No, we needn't take their verbal assaults like whipped dogs, but what we do need to do is find ways of talking to the world which are neither patronizing nor officious. Bush, in his address to the United Nations, went from one country to another telling them how to behave, what pleased and what displeased us, and what rewards they'd reap if they elected the right leaders who would guide them along the democratic paths we ourselves know in their hearts they want to follow. Even if true, the rhetoric will not help us get them there. It is not enough to think highly of one's own aspirations, motivations, and essential goodness. I don't think that works in the church the president prefers to worship in. It certainly doesn't work in the hurly-burly world he was addressing. (I'm assuming that the words were addressed to that world and not just to the voters in the November election.) A bit more humility, even in rhetoric, Mr. President, Mr. Vice President., congressmen, and diplomats.

Perhaps even think of the dwellers on the axis of evil as if they were friends whom by accident one has sprayed with shotgun pellets. (We did after all aid the Venezuelans who tried to depose Chávez, and I assume that we are aiding those who we hope might depose the shrewd little gentleman who parries the best that the American foreign policy wonks can throw at him.) Intelligent sympathy mixed with a bit of diplomatic humility will go a long way to the table at which one can get down to the nitty-gritty of national self-interest.

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