On January 20th, 1977, for the first time in history, a newly inaugurated president got out of his limousine and walked to the White House. In 2001, a president appointed by the Supreme Court, speeded his limousine as it was pelted with garbage by American citizens. That is not the only dissimilarity between former President Jimmy Carter and Mr. Bush. Carter spoke the bottom-line of Christianity before it became fashionable to pose for pictures on your knees in a church. That bottom line allowed him to give a commencement speech at Notre Dame, just months after his inauguration, that stated that he expressly rejected America’s “inordinate fear of communism” and publicly committed himself to supporting the more important matter of human rights. Later that same year, he took the oil industry to task for executing “the biggest rip-off in history.” Later in Carter’s presidency, he faced and successfully negotiated the Iran hostage situation.
Religion and oil are once more front and center in America, as it was nearly thirty years ago. And, once more, Iran is at the forefront of a new crisis for Americans, particularly American soldiers and their families. Then, ostensibly because Carter allowed the Shah to enter the United States for medical treatment, 66 Americans were held hostage for 444 days before he was able to secure their release. Today, every single American and all American interests wherever they are, have been threatened by Iran in response to the Bush administration’s aggression towards that country. I’m not speaking of the nuclear debate. I’m speaking of the amassing of forces along the borders of Iran, and of the conduct of covert operations against that country, both of which have been going on long before this latest Justification For War was put into public-motion. Sadly, Mr. Bush does not have the capability to release a single American from the vice of that threat. Ever.
America is sinking once more down the slippery slope that took the nation to Iraq, took Iraq away from the Iraqi people and delivered it to the Taliban. This time we’re off to plunder Iran.
Two days ago, President Ahmadinejad of Iran sent Mr. Bush an eighteen-page letter, breaking 27 years of official silence between the two countries. There was, reportedly, a sense of euphoria in the streets of Tehran, as Iranians contemplated the possibility of civil discourse. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t know that Mr. Bush is illiterate. There was no Carter to take note of this gesture, not even a Clintonesque Rhodes Scholar to be able to respond in kind. All America had was “Condi” to summarily dismiss the letter, its intent, its writer, its nation of origin, the very culture that created it, and, perhaps most disturbingly, the philosophical debate laid bare within it.
The history of Iran began c.4000 BC. The Caucasian history of the United States began about 250 years ago. Conversation between Iran and America is like a discussion between a wizened village druid and a zygote in utero. Still, since both have to inhabit the same universe, conversation is what the Iranians were hoping for. After all, someone has to teach the zygote not only how to mature until it can join the world but how to survive within it, and much of survival depends upon the ability to communicate effectively and peacefully with other human beings.
The cultural impasse between America and the Arab, and indeed much of the non-European world, has always been wide, and sadly, in the absence of a credible translator, it is growing. An Arab or Asian leader, in the event of receiving an epistle of eloquence and erudition such as this one was, would, far from dismissing it, rise to the challenge of bringing their own intellect to the negotiating table. Leaders, after all, are supposed to engage in the type of esoteric discussions that the nations they represent have elected them to manage.
Non-western cultures are noted for their reliance on symbolic gestures, for subtlety in discourse. There is a story I recall from my undergraduate days in Washington DC. A young Middle Eastern student, freshly in the United States, got involved in an argument at a club. Before the situation deteriorated, this student removed his watch and asked his American friends to hold it for him, because he was not going to have it broken in a fistfight. His friends did just that: they held onto his watch as the argument escalated and he ended up on the street with serious bruises. He could not understand what had happened. “I gave them my watch,” he said, later, “they were supposed to stop me from having to go and fight with those people!”
It’s a familiar tale. In most non-Western villages and street corners around the world, people get to a point in an argument where they utter some variation of the following: “You better hold onto me because otherwise I’m going to beat the crap out of X,Y or Z.” At this point, each person’s friends step up, literally hold onto the person, and “prevent” the fight by negotiation an amicable settlement. No war.
Defending ones honor, saving face, avoiding bloodshed. All entirely doable. Yes, simultaneously doable. But there has to be a consensual agreement that these are the rules of engagement. That there must be dignity left intact for both parties. That both parties meet as equals, leave as equals. They both get to rattle their sabers and display their might but may withdraw without seeming to. Braggadocio is for the stage. Diplomacy is conducted at the quiet ethnic restaurant down the street from the theater, over a nice dinner, good wine and great conversation.
When the Iraqi people said “we will fight unto death,” they were hoping to be spared that grim burden. Unfortunately, they were dealing with Americans who said “bring it on,” and meant it. When Americans said “bring it on,” they thought they were at the half-time show of the Superbowl. Unfortunately, when the Iraqi’s said “we will fight unto death,” they were prepared to keep their word.
Carter was condemned at home as being tolerant of dictators. How could he spend New Year’s Eve with the Shah, and toast him as leading “an island of stability” in a troubled region? How could a Christian man kiss the atheist Russian Brezhnev? The kind, I suppose, that could restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in Haiti, and negotiate the Camp David Accord between Egypt and Israel. What kind of madman sends his wife, and later his mother, to the funeral of a Pope? The kind who understood that gestures speak louder than words, that sending ones wife or mother, is a statement of respect far greater than quibbling over which ex-Presidents get to attend and showing up there with an entourage of uninvited politicians in tow such as happened at the funeral of the last pontiff.
Yes, Carter was a President who understood the culture of other nations. A president who once said, “The same rocket technology that delivers nuclear warheads has also taken us peacefully into space. From that perspective, we see our Earth as it really is -- a small and fragile and beautiful blue globe, the only home we have. We see no barriers of race or religion or country. We see the essential unity of our species and our planet; and with faith and common sense, that bright vision will ultimately prevail.” If only common sense was not so uncommon.
Now we have Iran. Now we have this missive from the Iranian President. I am praying that the zygote has learned something.
Ruani Seneviratne Freeman is the
Director of the Sahana Project. Email to: