Monday, July 6, 2009

Obama, Ahmadinejad, and the Moral High Ground

On Saturday, I posted a link on Facebook to this article, about Ahmadinejad's invitation to speak with Obama. I've been thinking about the ways it makes sense to respond to him.

Here's what I said on Facebook:
"This after accusations of meddling? Sounds odd, but is a win-win for him. If Obama does not participate, it'll look like an insult, judgment, and meddling. If he does, Ahmadinejad will take the participation as a sign of the legitimacy of the election, of respect. If Obama participates, he'll be criticized for supporting what many see as an illegitimate victor. If he doesn't, he'll be criticized for not following through on his commitment to open up to the muslim world. Ahmadinejad is not a stupid man."

The decision about how to respond is a tough one. I think the first quality of a smart response would be to wait, be patient, and do nothing initially. The U.S. has a great deal to focus on right now, domestically, and with regard to nations other than Iran. The second thing I think makes sense would be to make the meeting quite public. In this sense, the proposal to meet at the U.N. is a good one.

A colleague of mine and I discussed the weight of each side of the dilemma I have described. The options before Obama are basically two. He can choose not to meet with Ahmadinejad or he can meet with him. What does Obama, America, or the world gain from not meeting with Ahmadinejad? If one wants to protest the elections in Iran, you might think, not meeting with Ahmadinejad could be seen as a statement that challenges his government's legitimacy. To meet with Ahmadinejad, some might say, would be to endorse the tactics he used to suppress his people.

Essentially, I think that this point of view depends on the tenor of the meeting. If Obama were to engage in this meeting casually, making sure not to be interpreted as meddling, the critics would be right. At the same time, Obama could turn the challenge of meddling on its ear. To meddle is a colonialist throwback of illegitimate intrusion. It would be best not to do that. Meddling, however, is quite different from pursuing the moral high ground. My colleague pointed me to this article from the New York Times, which discusses Obama's anti-proliferation agenda.

If Obama were to explain, prior to the meeting, his motivation for meeting with Ahmadinejad, he could diffuse concerns about legitimating the election. The motivation is the higher moral obligation to fight nuclear proliferation, a worry for all people. Also, Obama can go to the meeting critical of Ahmadinejad's administration's violence against his own people. He can compare Iran's election to the disputed, but peaceful transition that the United States underwent in 2000. He can reiterate the value of transparency, the rule of law, and of the moral worry that the whole world must deal with concerning nuclear weapons.

If he meets with Ahmadinejad, then, he must ignore the accusations of meddling. After all, Ahmadinejad asked for the meeting. How can he complain? He will, but it will come accross far less weighty a criticism when Obama calls for the high ground internationally in terms of nuclear concerns and democratically with regard to the legitimate basis of government. In sum, he will need to bite the bullet of meddling, but from the high ground that will leave him consistent in being open to talks without pre-conditions and morally virtuous in advancing a peaceful and democratic message.

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