Friday, May 12, 2006

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How to write back to Mahmoud?

In Slate, Fred Kaplan has a pretty good idea for how to respond to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter:

President Bush should publicly respond to the letter—at length and in detail. Daffy as the letter is, it does contain one clue that Ahmadinejad might really be seeking a dialogue. More to the point, many people and governments in the world, especially (but by no means exclusively) in the Muslim world, are taking the letter seriously and believe that it deserves a reply.

In short, it provides a perfect opportunity for Bush to do what he should have been doing for the last few years—to lay out what America stands for, what we have in common with Muslim nations, and how our differences can be tolerated or settled without conflict.

If such a reply leads nowhere—if it turns out that Ahmadinejad's letter is as empty as it seems on the surface—no harm will have been done. Bush can continue to step up pressure on Iran's nuclear activities. In fact, civil correspondence with the Iranian president could be touted as a sign of Bush's good intentions and his desire for diplomacy.

Kaplan is correct about Ahmadinejad's letter being a PR boost in the Muslim world -- which is truly depressing, for the letter is a rambling, inchoate, milleniarian text.

Readers are invited to outline what should be contained in the best possible response letter.

The only downside to responding would seem to be that a response somehow confers legitimacy upon Ahmadinejad -- which Bush is anathema to do.

A final note: Kaplan also goes onto confirm that I'm not crazy in being ticked off at the administration for whiffing on an opportunity to negotiate a grand bargain with Iran back in 2003. Kaplan links to the obvious source for the original FT story on this -- former NSC senior director Flynt Everett. Check out his January 2006 New York Times op-ed here and his Q&A with interviewer extraordinaire Bernard Gwertzman here.

UPDATE: Historian par excellance Mary Sarotte recounts the history of letters as a tool of diplomacy in the Washington Post. Her conclusions are consistent with Kaplan's:

If there is a lesson from this checkered history of correspondence in crisis, it is this: Content doesn't count. The historical record shows a clear mismatch between what was written in a letter and its consequences. Zimmermann meant to threaten the United States in secret; instead, his leaked telegram shored up its public resolve. Bismarck used a boring missive to mount a war; Kennedy ignored public demands of the Soviets to maintain peace.

Now, Ahmadinejad's letter is a highly suspect olive branch and an obvious public relations ploy. But it represents a rare opportunity in this particular contest of wills. Surely, there is a foreign policy official in Washington today who can figure out something better to do with Ahmadinejad's letter than ignore it.

posted by Dan on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM


Dear Mahamoud:

I had my aides give me a summary of your letter. Boy, you ask more questions than Helen Thomas. But, you being president and all, you deserve an answer. I got my aides working on that. If you like, I'll send Condi over and give you the answers directly. She'll drive her own car

Now, there is one thing I will answer. You talk well about God and the will of God and how can I do some things and still be a follower of Jesus and why don't we have a chat.

Well, first, the religion thing. I believe that I may serve as an instrument of God. I do not believe I know the mind of God. That's where we're different. You guys know God's will, and figure you are givin' him veto power. And that's gonna make talking tough. Because, as the tent preachers down in Crawford like to say, there isn't any negotiating with God.

But, hell, there is never any harm in talking. But how you do it is important. heaven knows, I have had my problem with the coherent speech thing and the diplomatic speech thing. Callin' you axis of evil, for one thing, probably wasn't so good. But that Great Satan tag you hang on us -- that's not so good, anyway. So talking -- it's going to actually be hard.

And here's the thing about really hard things. You just don't walk out one day and do it. You prepare the ground first. Otherwise, you think you're planting a field of corn, but all you get is a bunch of weeds and fat crows. So, I say, let's get our striped pants boys talking. Let's stop this joke that we don't "recognize" each other, and restart the diplomatic thing. Let's talk about that for a while.

And when everyone gets to knowing a little more about everyone else, then maybe we can have that chat. But right now, mahamoud, I don't even know you well enough to give you a nickname.



posted by: Appalled Moderate on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

The only downside to responding would seem to be that a response somehow confers legitimacy upon Ahmadinejad -- which Bush is anathema to do.

This seems like a nonissue. Like it or not, Ahmadinejad is really the leader of Iraq. It's not like we are contending the legitimate Iranian government is in Paris and is headed by the last Shah's grandson.

posted by: alkali on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

In international relations, "legitimacy" means "immune from external attack." Legitimacy is a minimalist notion--few regimes lack it, because if the standard is set at all high, that licenses frequent resort to warfare, and since 1945 that has been anathematized.

Legitimacy isn't conferred or denied unilaterally by any other nation, even the world's only superpower.

There's nowadays serious talk in many quarters in America--even among self-designated liberals--that the prospect of an nuclear Iran is intolerable. The ineluctable inference being, "push comes to shove, the U.S. may/must use force to prevent Iran's acquiring nuclear weapons."

If that attack comes, it will be worth asking again whether it was mere incompetence or pigheaded dogmatism that prevented a peaceful resolution of the conflict in 2004. And reflecting again on how the downward spiral's origins lay in the CIA's triumph on the streets of Tehran in 1953.

Who seriously believes that we are more secure for the misapprehension of the threat and the baleful results of the misdirected measures sent its way by this administration, led by Buchanan's chief rival for "worst president ever"?

posted by: Stunned Oncemore on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

The situation with Iran is very serious and Kaplan's suggestion makes a lot of sense on several levels:

1) As mentioned, it will give Bush a chance to make his case, both at home and in the Muslim world.
2) It will show to our erst-while allies that the US is not merely going through the diplomatic motions with Iran, but that we are serious about trying to find a negotiated solution.
3) It will play well domestically. If Bush reaches out sincerely to Iran and the effort fails, he will be in a much stronger position to convince a very skeptical public on merits for yet another war.
4) It will play well with the Iranians, who feel dissed by the US and are looking for a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
5) Lastly, a sustained diplomatic effort buys us time to get out of Iraq, which will both free up military forces and also reduce our exposure to any Iranian counterstrike.

War with Iran may become unavoidable, but we have a bit of time before that point is reached. As we have all rediscovered over the last three years, wars are messy and unpredictable things. Therefore, if there is even a remote chance of a diplomatic solution on Iran, it should be pursued - even if that means dealing with a regime we really don't like.

If Bush were smart, he would see this as a "Nixon goes to China" moment -not a perfect analogy, but appropriate nonetheless.

posted by: SteveinVT on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

Love that letter, Appalled Mod. It's the letter Bush would write if he were allowed to write his own letters.

And if he felt giddy, he'd PS something like, "Pay attention to me or you arabs are gonna glow in the dark by the time we're done with y'all."

posted by: Racer X, Speed Racer's (unbeknownst to him) brother on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

Dear Mr. President,

Thank you for explaining your ideas to me, and to the world. I will respond in kind.

First, I want to explain that the United States of America has been responsible to a diversity of citizens from its beginning. And so we have separated the function of government from religion. Each citizen applies his religious understanding when voting, and each public official and employee uses his religious understanding when working for the government. But our government attempts to completely avoid regulating religions. Probably we would not do it that well. And we give no religion special status in controlling government, except as voters and government workers individually live their beliefs. This has several benefits, and one of them is that since politics can sometimes be a dirty business, we don't corrupt our religious leaders. There is a saying, "When religion and politics ride the same cart, the whirlwind follows."

Our laws are intended only to promote the public good, not to enforce religion. In practice the result is not very different, and in court each judge and each jury decides from their own religious beliefs. In general we try to restrict people the minimum we can, consistent with the public good. This allows the good people to be better and the bad people to be worse; on average we think we come out ahead this way.

Similarly we generally believe that our government should interfere with businesses the minimum we can, consistent with the public good. We don't always follow that belief (as note our sugar industry which despite subsidies and tariffs is priced so high that corn syrup gets a lot of the business) but we usually think we are better off when we do.

We do not want an economic world empire. But some of our businesses have done things in other countries that they would not be allowed to do here. We have not decided what the USA should do about that.

We don't want a world military empire. We built a strong military back when the british empire and the soviet empire were fighting the nazis and the japanese empire. Then we felt the need to protect the world from the expanding soviet empire. After that we looked for another expanding empire to oppose. This seemed both easier and safer than giving up our organised military and starting from scratch when a new threat appeared.

And I should mention our nuclear weapons. We have spent a tremendous amount of money on nuclear weapons, and in some places we have contaminated our soil and groundwater. We haven't gotten much from it except the satisfaction that if someone else uses nuclear weapons to kill us all we can kill them back. Looking back on it, we would have done better with a pretend nuclear weapons program, with a few weapons to test and a lot of fake ones -- provided that no utterly-insane enemy found out. It is taking us a long time to wrestle with our fears about nuclear weapons. We have nearly 10,000 of them and we would probably be better off if we reduced that to 1000 or even less, but we aren't ready to. We want there to never be a nuclear war anywhere on the planet, and while so many of us think that our 10,000 weapons make that less likely, we can't throw them out. Nuclear weapons are a curse on the world, but it will take time to get rid of them.

That brings me to something specific. My country is predisposed to see emerging empires that are trying to get nuclear weapons. Winning wars against such countries is a way to justify our vast military expense. We thought we saw that in iraq and we were wrong. I would dearly love to find out we're wrong about you too. I will send you privately a plan you could use to show the world you are not attempting and will not attempt to make nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are not actually much use to your country any more than they are to mine. In return I would welcome a private message listing things my country could do in return. List anything you like; I might be able to provide one of them easier than another. Maybe we can make a deal we'd both want. It could be the start to much friendlier relations, and neither of us has anything to lose by trying.

In God we trust,

PS: Some americans have taken the ending of your letter "Vasalam Ala Man Ataba'al hoda." to be a declaration of war. They say your letter was an ultimatum, that the whole world must become muslim or be subject to attack. Would you mind publicly clarifying just what this phrase in your letter means to you, and whether you intended to threaten us?

posted by: J Thomas on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

I recommend seeing Rob Corddry's re-enactment of Bush's reply at about 2;30 second's into the clip "Eighteen Page Letter." Right now, it is in the middle of this page:

posted by: Michael Weiksner on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

Bush should admit that even though he's a good Christian, as they say, Christianity itself is really, when you get right down to it, just another absurd belief system that's pretty much outlived its usefulness and remains relevant only because it tends to give a shallow sort of comfort to the fearful and ignorant and, gosh darn it, there seems to be a lot of those folks around these days - but regardless of that maybe it's time to move past such things, espcially when trying to engage friends and foes alike in coherent, rational discussion.

And then he should encourage old Mahmoud to express likewise concerning Islam.

And then we can all live happily ever after.

posted by: saintsimon on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

1. Is Bush allowed to write letters?

2. Can he write in complete sentences?

3. What will Cheney allow him to say?

4. Why bother responding at all when you have already decided to go to war?

posted by: Babar on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]


To Ahmed, My Beloved: Verily, I had shown you the way of God, and it rests with you to prove yourself either grateful or ungrateful.

Now behold, for those who deny the truth I have readied chains and shackles, and a blazing flame – whereas, behold, the truly virtuous shall drink from a cup flavoured with the calyx of sweet-smelling flowers.

The truly virtuous eschew nuclear weapons and fulfil their vows, and stand in awe of my judgment. Behold, my eyes in the sky are indeed all-seeing. Evildoers - for them, I have readied a bald medic to examine their mouth and a griveous trial for all to see in Al Jazeera and repent.

posted by: jaimito on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

I have no doubt that many foreign policy officials have ideas as to how to respond to The Iron Sheik's letter. The problem is that none of them speak for the Bush administration.

Despite the much-acclaimed resurgence of the State Department's role in making foreign policy following the departure of the ineffectual Colin Powell, this administration still does not run foreign policy as a collaboration between the President and his Secretary of State, to which other officials are invited to contribute as appropriate. It operates instead by a kind of consensus. Policies to which the Secretary of Defense and the Vice President do not object can be pursued; policies to which they do object cannot; and policies to which they have given their support can be halted or moderated only after the most furious resistance.

The result is that most of the time Bush administration foreign policy will reflect the preferences of the Pentagon and the Vice President's office. But putting it that way is more than a little misleading. The dominant role these two actors have acquired in making foreign policy is not always accompanied by strong views as to what foreign policy ought to be. Cheney or Rumsfeld could object to a response to the Iranian president because they feel that the United States should not respond, but also because they don't know how the United States should respond and don't want to expend energy fending off proposals on a subject about which they know only what they don't want. They have a negative veto, in that they can stop action without necessarily having any better ideas.

Now, actual direct talks with Tehran, to be useful, would require the administration to have the answers to some basic questions. What are its objectives in such talks -- what does it want from the Iranians? What does it think the Iranians want? Is it prepared to end the talks if each side's objectives prove incompatible, or is keeping them going in itself an important objective? Is it prepared to insist on strict reciprocity from the Iranians, or does it anticipate making concessions in the hope that this will make the Tehran government feel less insecure and hostile?

"An official" could answer these questions; a committee the two most influential members of which may know only what they do not want is much less likely to be able to do so. It is of course true that a President in our system has the power, in the abstract, to break this kind of stalemate by imposing a solution that reflects mostly his own preferences. This President, however, is so dependent on his Vice President and Secretary of Defense as to make this highly unlikely in this case. In any event, inaction here is most likely the course that will place the fewest burdens on the President's own time and attention, making it the most attractive course both for him and possibly for a number of his subordinates as well.

posted by: Zathras on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

Mary Sarotte is wrong about the role of Molotov-Ribbentopp pact, and, therefore, she is wrong on the importance of letters Hitler and Stalin exchanged before the pact was signed. Hitler was determined to attack Poland (and after that USSR) anyway, so signing the pact could have influenced when and how the events were happening, but had no effect on what actually happened. The misconseption that signing the MRP triggered the WWII is a popular myth.

So this example is quite unlike Khrushchev and Kennedy case when things could have gone otherwise.

posted by: Enisei on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

Shalom, Ha Nasi Ahmadinajed

Karati ha miktav shelach .......

posted by: liberalhawk on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

When I read the translation of Ahmedinejad's letter, a quote from The Simpsons came to mind...

"I'm embarassed for you!" -Ralph Wiggum, to Lisa Simpson

I submit that the letter not only made Ahmedinejad look like a rambling idiot but was also a diplomatic faux pas on several levels.

I have mixed feelings about how the US respond, if at all. On the one hand, I don't believe that Bush or Rice or anyone really should dignify this correspondence and its contents by responding, niether verbally nor in writing. That could give Iran too much satisfaction and legitimize the letter. On the other hand, I want the US to be charitable and at least smile at Iran while we think something else in our heads.

Would it kill us to be nice to our enemies? As Ahmedinejad might have been trying to say to Bush, What would Jesus do?

posted by: Deborah on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

I liked Hitch on Slate today. Lets send an answer to the Iranian PEOPLE.

posted by: liberalhawk on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

I've been tempted to write my own letter to Ahmedinejad and ask him bluntly if he intends to nuke Israel or any other country.

posted by: hb on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

I agree, sending a leter to the entire Iranian people as the reply to the president of Iran is far more effective at communicating our growing concern about theofascism in Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

We have to make it clear in such a letter that Iran or any other Islamic nation acquiring nuclear power is not a problem (how can we help?), but that fascism becoming nuclear armed is intolerable.

If our president--and especially the next one--does not start soon publicly making the sharp distinction between the moderating influence of Islam upon nuclear power and theofascism's thirst for eternal war, then we, Israel and Iran are headed for our worst nightmare.

A short, one-page letter is all that is required; the shorter, the better...and for a truly impressive letter, leave God out of it.

'Be free.'

posted by: a Duoist on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

I don't agree on "Content doesn't count". Ms. Sarotte mentioned the Bismarck way of starting a war by faking some content of a letter by the french, widely known as Emser Depesche. In fact, he sent a nonfactual abstract of the french letter to the Prussian King in Berlin - exactly knowing about what the bogused content will cause in the german public. It is a perfect example that content does matter.

[1] If you are interested in this stuff, the original and the Bismarckian letter can be read here (in german):

posted by: Falk Lüke on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

Why should Ahmed´s letter be answered by another letter? I have a better idea. The White House pissoire should be decorated with Ahmed's portrait, and the President should be photograped exercising his pissing powers.

posted by: jaimito on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

The White House pissoire should be decorated with Ahmed's portrait, and the President should be photograped exercising his pissing powers.

Wonderful idea. At last you've found a task for Bush that he can carry out compeatently.

I hope he could do that adequately, anyway.

posted by: J Thomas on 05.12.06 at 10:32 AM [permalink]

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