COLUMN: Posturing in the UN: Why our stature is slumping on the world stage

By Andrew Mason

If you pay attention to the news, then you know that Presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from Iran and Hugo Chavez from Venezuela addressed the United Nations in New York last week. They were participating, along with President Bush, in an annual event in which the international body invites various heads of state to address the General Assembly. Both men lead governments that openly defy the United States on a variety of issues, most notably the Iranian pursuit of nuclear technology.

But chances are, you didn’t hear much of what they had to say. The biggest headline coming out of last week’s gathering of the most powerful people in the world was some variation on “Chavez says Bush is ‘El Diablo'(Devil).” Cable news and newspapers all over the country (including this one) didn’t take much time to discuss the substantive portions of both leaders’ addresses.

Instead, the media largely followed the Bush administration in its pursuit to dismiss its critics. Its efforts to shift the debate away from real arguments about how the United States should prosecute its foreign policy (which is the root of these radicals’ power) to how backward and offensive the two men are has been and continues to be widely successful.

It would seem unusual to the casual observer why the U.S. had only one low-level staffer taking notes during these important (and nationally televised) speeches. It is far more difficult to believe the administration when it advocates diplomacy as the first and best way to work out differences when it cannot be bothered to show up for opening arguments.

One could argue that Chavez and Ahmadinejad brought it on themselves. After all, how seriously can you take someone who denies the Holocaust happened? Or somebody who’s been cultivating his own personality cult by portraying himself as the next great Latin socialist revolutionary?

Regardless of the incompatibility with our beliefs, it does not change the current power calculus. It is in our best national interest to confront these figures on the issues if we still truly believe in the power of diplomacy. But the issue that seems the most taboo is the idea that our lack of respect toward foreign cultures vis a vis their governments contribute to the unpopularity of our policies toward the rest of the world.

However, it’s an election year so Heaven forbid somebody say that they make even the smallest valid point. Instead what we got is bipartisan outrage that these evil foreigners came to our turf and dared to criticize our government’s (and culture’s) divine monopoly on all that is good and just.

The result of our posturing is negative progress. Traditionally, dialogue between countries reduced the possibility for hostilities. It boggles my mind that as a result of this charade we are, if anything, closer to armed conflict than we were a month ago. I use the word charade because no attempt at real dialogue was evident. Not from President Bush or Vice-President Cheney, not from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi or Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, not from Secretary Rice, not from the public and certainly not from the media.

I’m aware of the argument that engaging with men like Chavez and Ahmadinejad legitimizes them. But I also recall a handshake by a certain Secretary of Defense to a certain Iraqi dictator. If Nixon could go to China and if Reagan could go to the Soviet Union, then why can’t our President make a groundbreaking tour of the Middle East? I doubt five hour trips to Baghdad will cut it.

If, as President Bush proclaims, Islamic radicalism is the biggest threat to our national security then perhaps we should not stand as ostriches with our heads in the ground hoping that Iran won’t go nuclear (literally) on its own. If this really is the “decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century,” then we should engage in some honest dialogue.

That battle begins here at home with our leaders, not with tanks in Tehran.