Three men who ought to be talking to one another

Threeleaders                               Ali Khamenei        Xi Jinping        Barack Obama
President George Bush when speaking after his meeting with President Putin on the Brdo pri Kranju estate in northern Slovenia on June 16, 2001 had this to say:
“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue… I was able to get a sense of his soul….He’s a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country and I appreciate very much the frank dialogue and that’s the beginning of a very constructive relationship.”

Could Bush have really meant this? Why did he say it? Many of course have made fun of him for his words, especially since Putin has shown himself to be anything but trustworthy, let alone in possession of a soul of his own. But perhaps at that time, hardly ten years after the disintegration of the USSR, Putin just the second president of the new Russia was carrying with him much of the aura of the old USSR, and for Bush was therefore someone of real importance, especially if he, Bush, would accomplish any of his own international agenda. So why would he not flatter the man?

The flattery didn’t work of course, not for Bush’s own foreign agenda, nor did it do much of anything for his successor, Barack Obama. Putin’s actions, let alone his soul evidently couldn’t then and can not now be influenced by even the very best of words, first of Bush, and then by the soaring rhetoric of President Obama.

Putin was and still is much more the thug and the bully than the thoughtful international player and statesman that not only Bush but many of the world’s leaders wanted him to be. Has President Obama given up on him? We probably won’t know the answer to that until we read our President’s memoirs a good number of years from now.

In June of 2001 Putin was in Bush’s eyes the man. And just six years later Bush even brought Putin to Kennebunkport in Maine for a 2 day visit seemingly still believing in his own power to influence the man. That also led to nowhere.

Who today is the man, or rather who are the men or women, the world leaders on whose cooperation President Obama must depend if he would accomplish one or more of his own international goals? There are a number of them, but among the hundred and ninety or so, representing the world’s nation states, I would single out two, Ali Khamenei, the Grand Ayatollah, or Supreme Leader of Iran, and Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, also China’s nominal President.

Now neither Iran nor China, of course, is a liberal democracy, in fact, much less so, even, than Putin’s Russia. But does that alone make them our enemies? In Iran’s case when illiberal politics are combined with nuclear ambitions it would seem so. In the case of China we’re still struggling with the relationship, trying to figure it out and keep the economic train we ride together from flying off the track. And unlike Iran we’re not yet convinced that the Party’s illiberal rule makes them our enemy.

Now where am I going with all this? I have in mind two recent articles, one from the New York Times, (the newspaper that continues to give us the very best capture in print, if not a complete record, of what’s happening in the world. — I know I depend on the Times to properly begin my own day, at least my day with ideas of which the Times always has many.

The other article is from the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs. Both articles, the one from the Times about Xi Jinping, and the other from FA about Ali Khamenei, make me think that these two men, unlike Putin, might be reached by diplomacy, by meetings and conversations, by something altogether other than sanctions, trade wars, and ultimately the threat of armed force, those sorts of things that Vladimir Putin perhaps best, perhaps only understands.

Xi Jinping, seems to me a family man, or at least someone who doesn’t just use people but also cares about them, as people care about their own families. Ali Khamenei, on the other hand, seems definitely a thinker, an intellectual. Obama being both a family man and thinker himself ought to be able to find common ground with the two of them. (With Putin, on the other hand,  there seems to be no ground at all on which the two of them could comfortably stand. Obama’s recent decision not to go to Moscow was the right one, for Putin while pretending to listen probably doesn’t hear.)

Xi Jinping, and especially Ali Khamenei, are interesting men, much more interesting than Putin, who at best was never more than a mid-level KGB officer stationed in Communist East Germany, always preoccupied then, and probably now still, by theories of Western conspiracies, intended in his eyes to even further undermine and weaken his country, Russia.

For some reason Putin, this very ordinary man, for he is ordinary, was selected by young Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, not an ordinary man himself, and named President of Russia in his, Yeltsin’s place. (Had Yeltsin, like Bush, looked into Putin’s soul? Probably not for if he had he would never have done what he did and raised this very ordinary man to the presidency of a great and extraordinary nation.)

I continue to wonder today if Yeltsin had selected someone else whose sympathies had been if not with, not opposed to the aspirations of the Western liberal democracies, to wonder just how different the world might be today.

Threeleaders                       Supreme Leader, General Party Secretary, and President

If you listen carefully to the two of them, to Ali Khamenei and Xi Jinping, look closely at them, think about who they are now, where they’ve come from, and if you not only listen but also hear what they’re saying, I think you might then conclude as I have that the two of them and Obama are not all that far apart, and that the three of them could get along, and that they could if they would begin to work together do much to mitigate if not solve some of the world’s most pressing problems,

— In particular a few of the world’s obvious failures, the failed Arab spring, the failure of so many nations of the Middle East and Africa to provide elementary services for their people, the colossal failure of all the world’s nations, including these United States, to take substantial steps to protect the earth and the resources of the earth, and thereby protect its life forms from further exploitation and further habitat destruction.

First there is the article from the Times by Chris Buckley, China takes aim at Western Ideas. There we read that Communist Party cadres have filled meeting halls around China to hear a somber, secretive warning issued by senior leaders. A warning that power could escape their grip unless the party eradicates some seven subversive currents coursing through Chinese society….

— The first  [of the “subversive currents”] being “Western constitutional democracy”; others including promoting “universal values” of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s traumatic past. And further we read that the Communist Party document had the approval and direct endorsement of Xi Jinping, that it accurately reflected the General Secretary’s own views.

What then should be our response? Does naming our beliefs “subversive” to his intentions for China make Xi Jinping our enemy? I hope not. Ought we not rather try to understand his position? That wasn’t the tenor of the article. The article pointed out just how much the Communist Party views went against our own beliefs in liberal democracy and its accompanying tenets — the rule of law, constitutional democracy, and all the rest. And one might come away from a reading of the article with little or no hope that China’s leader, who like his Party, was clearly rejecting the beliefs that we held most dear, that this man was one with whom we could work.

But if one reads the history of China, and especially the recent history of all that China has suffered from us, from the West, one can easily understand Xi Jinping’s position that the West still today embodies those same liberal democratic principles that did little to unselfishly help China modernize during the last two centuries, and in fact probably retarded their progress, just as the West did in so many of the African countries.

It’s not at all a stretch to see that our own ideals and values may in fact be detrimental to what obviously appears to the Chinese Communist leaders as their courageous, if not always realistic efforts to bring nearly 1.4 billion people comfortably into the modern world. The Party of Xi Jinping may be right, and our liberal democratic principles may very well be undermining their own efforts to improve the lot of their people. We ought at least to listen to them before rejecting what they say on the sole basis of their apparent rejection of individual rights and freedom.

Furthermore, the dispute between us and them is similar to disputes we have regularly among ourselves. The differences in our public schools, for example, arising over child centered or teacher or higher authority centered education. Between those who place the child and those who place the teacher as the central figure in the classroom, the one representing choice and the freedom to learn, and the other the agent of restraints on that freedom, requiring that the child listen and obey, do what he is told (—the Chinese student and future worker, following the directions of the Party boss).

Furthermore, it’s now a fact that the Chinese Communists have made enormous progress in eliminating poverty and illiteracy among their people. (Have we done as much, or at least no less than they, for our still hard to reach impoverished inner city populations?) Would a liberal democracy have done as well? Probably not. In regard to the other one of the world’s nations with a population of nearly 1.4 billion, India, and unlike China a democracy, the jury is still out regarding how well they have done eliminating the poverty and illiteracy of their own people, regarding which country’s methods are  most effective.

And of course both systems, our liberal democracy and China’s autocratic Party rule, are not without their failures. We, for example, don’t know what to do about our illegal immigrants, even less about our huge prison populations, and still less about how to educate a third to a half of kids in the public schools. Now it seems for the most part we leave them adrift at the termination of their formal schooling, without the slightest possibility of finding a job paying a living wage.

And we might go on speaking of our own failures. We have yet to solve our enormous problem of the rising and more and more prohibitive costs of healthcare, education, and social security, all necessary programs to the welfare of not just the neediest among us, programs that we cannot simply ignore and certainly not eliminate. China’s rulers might have advice to give us regarding our own failures (failures of liberal democracy, failures of an absence of authoritarian rule, failures of both?). If nothing else we ought to admit that we have much to learn, maybe even something from Communist China?

But from Iran, from the grand Ayatollah, the Supreme Ruler of Iran, the country that would be a theocracy while at the same time building its own atomic bomb thus making the Middle East an even more dangerous place, do we also have things to learn from them? Or should we go as we have been and continue to treat Iran as our enemy, go on devising new economic sanctions that while hurting the Iranian economy, will at best (at worst) only hurt the Iranian people themselves, and probably do nothing to turn the illiberal rulers of the theocracy into liberal democrats.

And if anyone thinks we’re there, that we’ve made it, when compared to China and Iran (actually I think that myself, at least in most respects) you might confront our shameful failure to prevent our nation’s wealth from falling more and more into the hands of the very few,  —the average household net worth for the top 1% in 2009 was almost $14 million, while the average household net worth for the bottom 47% was almost nothing.

Now just as we judge the positions and statements of Xi Jinping knowing little or nothing of the history of China, so we tend to judge no less Ali Khamenei, knowing little of the man and almost nothing of his own and his country’s history. And both the man and his country are extraordinarily interesting, and to be more knowledgeable of both would most likely change our attitude. Too often without doing our homework we assume that either a country is with us, in this case in regard to our beliefs in liberal democratic principles, or against us by its simply holding principles opposing ours.

In respect to Ali Khamenei we ought not to reject him out of hand on this basis. Our own President might begin by reading the article from Foreign Affairs, Who is Ali Khamenei? The Worldview of Iran’s Supreme Leader.  After reading the article I concluded that there was only one important difference between our two countries, and that was the place given to religion or the church in our two governments. For I’m 100% sure that Iran’s “constitution,” assuming there is one, has no first amendment or establishment clause.

How many of you have ever thought that with other “founding fathers,” other than Thomas Jefferson, John Adams et al., we might very well have gone the way of Iran? I’m sure that among the Americans at the time of the country’s founding there were many who shared Ali Khamenei’s views regarding religion. And even today there are many Americans, perhaps as many as half of us, who might not object to the overthrow of the establishment clause, who might easily accept the establishment of an official religion, in our case Christianity. Our politicians do speak that language in public.

What are Khamenei’s views regarding religion? In the areticle his own views are made clear, not so much from his own words, but from the cited words of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the Egyptian intellectual, activist, and chief theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood, who we’re told stole Khamenei’s heart when he, Khamenei, was a young man (also, perhaps the “heart” of Bin Laden?), and who was executed by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in 1966.

Qutb propagated the idea of an Islamic state along with the establishment of a state religion. In his own words quoted by Akbar Ganji in his article in Foreign Affairs:

If you want Islam to be an agent of salvation, you must rule and must understand that this religion has not come for one to sit in houses of worship; it hasn’t come to make a nest in hearts. Rather, it has come to govern and run life in a proper fashion; it has come to build a progressive and complete society. . . . If we want Islam to answer social, ethnic, and other problems and solve our problems and show a way to cure them, we must think about government and its formation and bring our decisions to implementation. . . . Islam without government and a Muslim nation without Islam are meaningless.

Pretty powerful stuff! Enough to make believers of us all?  “...religion has not come for one to sit in houses of worship; it hasn’t come to make a nest in hearts. Rather, it has come to govern and run life in a proper fashion; it has come to build a progressive and complete society.”

There are times in the lives of us all when we might succumb to this thinking, as did Ben Laden and Ali Khamenei along with tens of thousands of others. It is interesting to compare Qutb’s thinking with that of Thomas Jefferson (I take this from the article in the Wikipedia) .

Echoing the language of the founder of the first Baptist church in America, Roger Williams—who had written in 1644 of “[A] hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world”— Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Also powerful words. In conclusion I would say that the real issue between us and Iran is not nuclear, not Israel, but even religion, but the place of religion in the state. (There is of course the fact that religions are not just one, Islam, but two or more, while Khamenei, of course, sees religion as being only the one, Islam.)

But if we were a Christian nation, the way Iran is or would be an Islamic nation, our two nations would probably get along quite well. (And there is the further irony that many freedom loving Americans but also true believers would probably agree with Qutb about the proper place of religion in our lives.)

As things are Ali Kamenei sees us (wrongly I think) as a country of unbelievers, where everything is permitted, where sex and violence have assumed the roles of bread and circuses in ancient Rome, being there to keep the people in line. And much as Xi Jinping in China he sees Americans as being too free and thereby, by their not always responsible use of their freedom, as undermining the progressive and good society he would bring about in Iran. And in certain respects he’s probably right about that, just as Xi Jinping is right about how through our promoting of political freedoms we are undermining the Communist Party’s efforts in China.

Obama should meet and talk with both men, while not totally rejecting their criticisms of us. That would be the beginning of real conversations that I believe would be possible between them.

Probably both Khamenei and Jinping see us as having left the building of a “progressive and complete society” to private and secular efforts, meaning mostly to chance, not to the command and control of an authoritarian state.

Talking to one another, diplomacy is what is needed between us. Trade sanctions, threats of armed conflict and such ought to be set aside, at least in regard to these two countries. The leaders of three countries want what they believe is best for their peoples (unlike Putin who probably has never even thought about what’s best for the Russian people, only what’s best for him and his crony friends.)

We ought to be able to talk about the respective advantages of a religious or a secular state, of a democratically elected or authoritarian government, without tensions and conflict. For there are advantages on both sides.

We of course have not yet built our own “complete and progressive society.” But we’re working at it, and we ought to be talking with others with whom we have much in common while traveling different roads to much the same ends.

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