Sunday, June 21, 2009

On Choosing Words Carefully

It has been a while since I placed a text under a strong magnifying glass; but, considering how volatile conditions currently are in Iran, I think it is worth examining Barack Obama's most recent statement this way. If he thinks he is pouring oil on troubled waters, then others may see him as setting a match to that oil. Let us consider his first (and most quoted) paragraph (using Robert Dreyfuss' most recent blog post for The Nation as my source):

The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.

This text starts out immediately on the wrong foot with its use of "must." This is nothing more than that great classic of Bush-speak, "ya gotta understand" (which I once called "the only rhetorical device Bush has mastered"), with less folksy phonology. It presumes that the speaker's point of view is the only valid one, and this shows a flagrant disregard for the message behind the subtitle of (now "banished") Dennis Ross' Statecraft book, which is the need "to restore America's standing in the world." The bottom line is that this one little word reveals that, when push comes to shove, we can fall back on the same might-makes-right reasoning of the Bush Administration that got us into so much trouble.

This injudicious use of the word "must" is followed by the equally suspect adjective "unjust." Like it or not, the Iranian government has a justice system. We may not like the way it works, and we are under no obligation to agree with it or support it. However, using the word "unjust" amounts to invalidating it; and, like it or not, we do not have grounds to do so.

This then takes us to the even more highly-charged adjective "universal." Presumably, this adjective was engaged because it appears in the title of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948. Unfortunately, subsequent debates and decisions emerging from the United Nations since then have demonstrated that there is far from "universal" agreement when it comes to taking the 30 articles of this Declaration seriously in practice. Thus, Obama would have done better to make his point on the basis of his grounds for support, referring to "rights granted by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights" without shoving the "universality" of those rights in the faces of those currently violating the Preamble (free speech) and Article 20 (assembly) of that Declaration.

As was the case when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first elected, we would do well to recognize how little this disputed election has to do with the governance of Iran. Power still resides ultimately with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and the president is little more than an "interface" between the world of this religious leader and the world of other countries, whether their governments are secular or sacred. Khamenei has made it clear that those who protest are indisputably at fault and will thus be subjected to the consequences of their faulty actions. Those are currently the "rules of the game" in Iran. If we are going to even try to exercise statecraft, we cannot begin by denying that those rules exist. This puts most of the Western countries in a great bind. However, this may have been Khamenei's intent. He is testing us to see if (and how) we can negotiate from such a difficult position. This will be Obama's real test as to whether or not meaningful relations with Iran can be restored. Khamenei has created that test, and it is now up to Obama to figure out how to pass it.

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