'Jaw, Jaw,' Not 'War, War'

The visit of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, to the United Nations General Assembly in New York during the week of Sept. 23 presented a sad series of missed opportunities. The city’s tabloids, with their vitriolic headlines, and pressure groups, with their hostile protests, expressed the animosity already stirred up against the Iranian by the Bush administration. The administration’s efforts to isolate its adversaries, rather than engage them in diplomatic exchanges, only intensifies tensions between our nations. Personal invective is never a substitute for a candid exchange of views. The chance to challenge Mr. Ahmadinejad’s provocative opinions was lost in a barrage of personal insults and demonstrations.

The invitation extended to Mr. Ahmadinejad to address the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, despite public protests, was in the best tradition of university life, where the opportunity to hear unpopular viewpoints and challenge them is protected by academic freedom. Unfortunately, the president of Columbia, Lee C. Bollinger, apparently stung by public criticism of the university’s invitation, chose to open the proceedings by calling the Iranian president “a petty and cruel dictator,” who would not “have the intellectual courage” to answer searching questions about his interpretation of the history of the Holocaust and Iran’s right to develop nuclear power. The reaction to Mr. Bollinger’s remarks was mixed, but even some of those who had protested the university’s invitation to Mr. Ahmadinejad expressed disappointment at the Columbia president’s violation of norms of hospitality and academic courtesy.


Some of the Iranian president’s comments at Columbia, like his denial that there are homosexuals in Iran, lived up (or down) to expectations. Nonetheless, he pointed out the moral ambiguity of the U.S. position on nuclear arms, which threatens Iran with military action if it pursues a policy of nuclear development, while violating nonproliferation agreements by favoring India’s efforts to enhance its nuclear arsenal. The United States has also failed to observe its commitment to reduce substantially its own nuclear stockpile, a ruined pillar of the nonproliferation regime. To other nations such a double standard in taking and granting privileged exceptions from nonproliferation mandates seems an exercise in arrogance. Selective enforcement of treaties naturally arouses resentment among disfavored nations, and it undercuts U.S. moral standing in the world. It will take decades for the United States to win back the good opinion lost by the overbearing style of this administration and the injury it has done to international law and institutions.

In arguing that the Holocaust should not be used to justify the oppression of the Palestinian people, Mr. Ahmadinejad likewise touched on an unresolved and neuralgic issue that haunts U.S. policy in the Middle East. Once again, he was able to parry accusations of denying history and meddling where he does not belong, because the U.S. administration, while giving lip service to the ideal of a two-state solution, has repeatedly employed a double standard. It has favored only those concessions to the Palestinians that have Israel’s prior approval and appears to be shaping multiparty talks scheduled for November to fit Israel’s negotiating strategy.

The meeting of the Iranian president later in the week with an interfaith panel of Christian leaders, arranged by the Mennonite Central Committee, was free of the personal rancor that soured his appearance at Columbia. The meeting, held in the Church Center for the United Nations, aspired, in the words of one participant, to explore the “common moral heritage” shared by Christians and Muslims. The Iranian president was asked whether it would it be possible to identify and admit the shortcomings “of your society and of ours.” While Mr. Ahmadinejad’s answer was no more satisfying than his answers at Columbia, the attempt to engage in honest dialogue was more promising than the walkout executed by the U.S. delegation when the Iranian president rose to speak to the General Assembly.

After Mr. Ahmadinejad departed, The New Yorker published a report by Seymour Hersh (“Shifting Targets,” 10/8) of continued planning within the Bush administration for military strikes against Iran. The story made apprehensive readers nostalgic for Winston Churchill, who once said, “To jaw, jaw is always better than to war, war.” The wider international community shares U.S. concerns about Iran, but the United States, as if out of a pathological need for an enemy, persists in shunning, isolating and demonizing Iran. If multiparty talks can succeed with North Korea, another nuclearizing member of the “axis of evil,” might not constructive engagement and negotiation succeed with Iran as well?

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Mary Keelan
11 years ago
Very well written and argued analysis of this most frightening situation. It is too bad that such essays in America do not receive wider dissemination in either the secular or religious press. A conversation among like-minded persons is fine but the dialogue and engagement needs to occur among well-meaning but ill-informed or unthinking persons in our parishes, communities, and families. Why can't a version of this essay --even its sub paragraphs--be the subject of a Sunday sermon or a discussion in a diocesan newspaper? But that raises another question: where can thinking persons within the larger belief community, most especially Catholics in various parish deserts, find a forum for intellectual nourishment and growth on such important political issues?
11 years ago
Congratulations to America for this wonderful editorial. True to America's and the Catholic Church's best traditions, the editorial presents a fair and balanced treatment of President Ahmadinejad's positons which were hardly heard over the shouting by the press and the name calling by President Bollinger. The simple fact is that Ahmandinejad said some silly and even deplorable things but he also made sense on a number of issues. The US is demonizing Iran and President Ahmadinejad is merely the excuse for the Bush government to once again falsely lead the American people to war. Thanks America for shedding light on this grave matter.
Eileen Helms
11 years ago
Amen. Let's re-introduce more diplomacy into our foreign policy, please! As for Mr. Ahmadinejad, he gets credit for being willing to take abuse for the sake of dialogue. Would that Columbia's Mr. Bollinger had addressed his remark about having the intellectual courage to answer questions (and face a hostile crowd!) to our own president. As for the content of Mr. Ahmadinejad's remarks, besides the ones listed in this editorial, there were other points Mr. Ahmadinejad made that we need to address as well. First, regarding the Palestinians: they are the ones to determine their own future, not anyone else. That's law. Second, regarding nuclear programs: why do other countries have to submit to IAEA inspections but the US does not? We are decidedly more dangerous but we have no checks on us.
John Braun
11 years ago
Even Churchill had to stop jawing and eventually take up arms. Dialogue with what Islamic extremism represents (a clerical totalitarian state) is worse than a fool's bargain, because in this case they have absolutely no intention of bargaining, never have, even from the days of the prophet himself. The Iranian president is a puppet of the mullahs, and the squabbling represented by our president, Mr. Bollinger, and the editors of America allows the puppet his dance.
John Braun
11 years ago
Well, I wrote a comment critical of your editorial which you didn't post. So, I'll try telling you how your wonderful comments about Iran left me longing for more and more dialogue. If only we could talk long enough, and keep everyone at the table, then the end would come before anything else bad ever happened to us again.


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