Madmen at the gates

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The Article

The advice, “Don’t worry about him, he’s just crazy,” may be sound, provided that the reference is to a man who is in fact neither crazy, nor armed.

This thought self-formulated 15 years ago, while I was sitting at an outdoor table with several local men, drinking tea in an outlying district of Lahore, in Pakistan. Suddenly they all scrambled away. By unhappy chance, I was stuck in the last scrambling position. A wild-eyed gentleman, curiously enough in a woman’s frilly dress, had approached our table. He was declaiming some sort of angry rant, though smiling—rather in the way Mahmoud Ahmadinejad smiles. He was also clutching the better part of a clay brick, and proposing by his gestures to hurl it at me.

Since running was no longer an option, I turned my attention to intercepting the brick. The gentleman wound up with it several times. But after a minute or so (it seemed somehow longer), he just started laughing and walked away.

The men I’d been sipping tea with also burst into laughter, and returned to the table. The most articulate of them, in English, patted me on the back and assured, “Don’t worry about him, he’s just crazy.” Our pleasant intercultural exchange resumed.

It is because of this memory that I often imagine President Ahmadinejad of Iran in a woman’s frilly dress. I don’t have to imagine the brick, since his fingers caress the buttons for much more powerful missiles. We learned this week that Iran has a second uranium enrichment facility, in addition to the one the International Atomic Energy Agency knew about at Natanz. It is built inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom. The second would be in defiance of a Security Council resolution, threatening sanctions. So is the first, for that matter. But the Iranian government casually admitted to it, in the approach to the direct, unconditional talks Barack Obama has promised them.

The new facility may or may not be complete (probably not, but it has never been inspected). It apparently contains about 3000 centrifuges. My own Persian is severely limited, but I gather from a person whose Persian isn’t that the Iranian announcement contained little ambiguities of number and tense, designed to leave the impression that the previously undeclared facility could be one of several.

But why should we worry? Why should Israel, in particular, which has been repeatedly threatened with nuclear annihilation by Ahmadinejad, worry? For after all, he’s just crazy.

It is not just Ahmadinejad. As demonstrators in all of Iran’s major towns and cities have been at pains to allege, for several months now, the whole government of Iran is crazy. It may be worth reminding my reader that by exacting Shia Islamic standards, it is crazy: for the whole Khomeinist revolution was built upon an interpretation of Shia Islam that is far from orthodox.

Now, at the United Nations this week, where Ahmadinejad was making his annual appearance, the man who is not wearing a woman’s frilly dress was actually upstaged by the president-for-life of Libya.

By contrast, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, poster boy for Latin American socialism—and Iran’s most voluble ally in the New World—delivered an uncharacteristically understated performance, devoting half his speech to a (favourable) review of Oliver Stone’s latest movie, and saving only to the other half such stranger things as his pious hope that President Obama would not be assassinated the way President Kennedy was.

I was speaking at an academic conference in Toronto recently with an old friend who, for his sins, was made UN ambassador for his Central European country. He was telling me, I suppose mostly off the record, about the surrealist or “dada” environment of that day job. He’d noticed that conventional diplomats were perfectly aware that others of their colleagues are, quite literally, insane. “You can’t help but notice the symptoms, when you get close to them.”

And yet, in every public statement, our diplomats speak as if they did not know, did not even suspect, what they freely acknowledge privately. This is the extraordinary craft of diplomacy: an exhibition of the subversion of civility by civility, with all the danger that follows from that.

There are gradations of sanity, of course. My friend is at the level of looking forward to retirement. Around the UN this last week, I would instance Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel within the chamber, and former U.S. ambassador John Bolton outside it, as exponents of (painful) clarity and reason.

Somewhere in the grey area are those who think the U.N. is a world legislature, whose members propose to negotiate peace agreements with madmen, who make concessions before the negotiations even start, and apply crude public pressure, but only to their allies. The current U.S. president is in that grey area.

David Warren
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