The assembled photographers stand on the concrete ramp outside the United Nations building on September 23 and peer at the front page of the New York Times , which shows two policemen on horseback galloping past a high stone wall shrouded in mist. Like me, the photographers have arrived here at daybreak to secure a good spot from which to observe the sixty-fifth annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. Everyone agrees that the auguries for the first day of the fall ritual are promising indeed. With courtly symmetry, the Secretariat has positioned President Barack Obama of the United States to speak second in the morning and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to offer a riposte from the second spot in the afternoon.
Two hours later the doors open; an hour and a half after that, I receive a printed paper slip that entitles me to a front-row seat in the upper press gallery. I enter as U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon instructs the delegates from 192 nations to act in the world with empathy and understanding. Scholarly and lean, Ban could be the rector of an American missionary college in Seoul. We continue to urge Iran to engage constructively with the international authority, Ban says, to a nod from a delegate from Sierra Leone, his combat uniform resplendent with ribbons awarded for battles that the rest of the chamber probably would rather not know about.
The first speaker is His Excellency the Minister for External Relations of Brazil, Celso Amorim. I bring the greetings of President Lula, he proclaims. Listening to the minister, one gets the sense that he is an envoy from an independent, self-sufficient planet that mines uranium, eliminates poverty, and operates a model foreign cotton farm in Mali and a retroviral plant in Mozambique. The next speaker, His Excellency Barack Obama, President of the United States, is late and is replaced by Doris Leuthard, the pretty, dark-skinned, dark-haired president of the Swiss Confederation. This causes a mild stir in the hall.
Leuthard speaks passionately but in abstractions about the delivery of humanitarian aid and says not a word about Switzerlands national business as banker to some of the worst people on the planet. Preaching foreign policy as a cynical distraction from nasty national policies pursued for pecuniary gain is common enough in this hall, except, of course, for the United States. American foreign-policy elites regularly choose between the lesser poison of short-term domestic electoral calculation and the greater poison of pure, unadulterated wish fulfillment, the geopolitical heroin on which the country is now firmly hooked. Bob Woodwards book Obamas Wars , which was released officially just as the General Assembly opened, shows that Obamas main concern in formulating U.S. policy in Afghanistan was the rather distant prospect of his re-election campaign three years later, after however many Americans and Afghans are killed and hundreds of billions of dollars wasted so that a strategically worthless pile of rocks can be delivered into the hands of a Taliban insurgency run by the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI.
His Excellency Barack Obama, President of the United States, announces the president of the General Assembly. It is in settings such as this that the internationalism of Obamas parentage, upbringing, and self-made political persona shine most brightly. He is here as president of the United States, but also as a child of a Kenyan father and a white American mother. Her dream of shedding her skin and living among the people of the third world”a romantic post-colonial fantasy”made her hybrid son feel physically ill. Still, her son is what she dreamed of becoming: a true citizen of the world. Ascending to the podium, he is greeted by mild applause. His way of marking time”today is nearly two years after my election”suggests that the speech that follows is intended mostly for domestic American consumption. Straight-backed and slender, he looks like the student president of the Model U.N.
Nine years ago, the destruction of the World Trade Center signaled a threat that respected no boundary of dignity or decency, the American president declaims, his voice echoing through the vaulted, gilded chamber of the General Assembly, which looks like a space-age African hut as realized by the finest hotel architects in Nairobi. That even in the worst days of the twenty-first century it is still impossible to shake off the deeply rooted Western fantasy of world government suggests the strength of the religious impulse behind the rationalist blueprint for the human future”the key religious term in the equation being the future . Obama nods, signaling his awareness of the fact that there are people who might disagree with what he has just said about the bad guys. Two years ago this month, a financial crisis on Wall Street devastated American families on Main Street, he then adds, carefully balancing the damage done by the one with the damage done by the other. Hear my words: Neither the third-world man nor the first-world man is immune from blame. Both tribes have done wrong.
Funnily enough, no matter how hard he tries to connect with a truly global vision, the American president still stands apart from the U.N. because of the unrivaled power of the country he represents and the demands of his prideful constituents. The result of these limitations is that Obama can blur but not abolish the double image of global leadership, in which the president of the United States stands equal to the combined authority of 191 other nations. Still, it seems plausible enough that he owes the rest of the world an accounting. Since I took office, the United States has removed almost one hundred thousand troops from Iraq, he says, tapping his hand in midair. Iran must come to accept the idea that it has both rights and responsibilities as a member of the international community. Those actions have consequences, he lectures. Then he moves on to the long history of diplomatic failures followed by violence that has earned the apparently sardonic title the peace process. Rejectionists on both sides will try to disrupt the peace process with bitter words and with bombs and with gunfire, Obama says, absolving himself in advance of any responsibility for the murders that will be committed in the name of yet another round of bad-faith negotiations.
Each of us must choose the path of peace, he says.
Israel is a sovereign state, and the historic homeland of the Jewish people.
In front of this audience, even such a bare statement of the fact that Israel is a state”the phrase historic homeland of the Jewish people is part of the U.N. resolution that created the state”draws an audible intake of breath. Yet Obama is a man of reason who tells the facts as they are. Israel is a state. Jews live there and have always lived there. As a man of reason, he is bound to speak the truth, even if he and his audience find it unpleasant. He is the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet, and he will say what has to be said, as written in the familiar script: that Israel is a sovereign state, that the United States will not tolerate attempts to delegitimize Israel or threaten its security, and that people who do such things are acting against justice and reason.
He stands for a long moment to let the fact of his physical presence here become a rebuke and also demonstrate to the world that his recent election as president is proof that America can overcome its own dark history.
We will call out those who suppress ideas.
We will support a free and open Internet.
Open society supports open government.
In this forum, the United States stands for democracy, the great American brand that we inherited half formed from the English. The botched U.S. military occupation of Iraq and the role of American-imposed elections in precipitating civil collapse from Pakistan to Gaza did little, however, to convince anyone in the audience today that Washingtons dictates are anything but poison.
Obama jabs his finger at the audience. Recall your own history, he instructs, because part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others. The lawyerly phrasing is far from inspiring, and the logic too broadly sentimental to be persuasive, and yet it is clear that Obama is able to speak to the third-world elites in a way that no other president has or can because only a hairs breadth of fate separates his fate from theirs. Here is Obamas dilemma on display before the entire world: On the one hand, his skin color and biography make it possible for him to speak as president of the United States in a new voice to the rest of the world. Yet when he opens his mouth, he is less persuasive than his predecessors. For whom is he speaking, exactly?
The place from which he speaks is curiously ambivalent. His identification with the children of the third-world elites who live between London, New York, and Jakarta makes him an effective symbol of American openness, but it also makes it hard for him to employ the vocabulary in which America figures as the beacon of the oppressed. In the vocabulary that he half consciously shares with the third-world leaders in this hall, America is the oppressor. He is hamstrung by his own ambivalence, able neither to speak in a full-throated way in support of the global empire that he now commands nor to disavow it.
Yet one can glimpse the possibility of a new Obama in this speech”an Obama who has emerged from the fog of received ideas about the world and started to form his own ideas about the use of American power. First he discovered that the Iranians were really not interested in peace. Then he was outfoxed by Benjamin Netanyahu. Then, in turn, the Palestinians made him look bad. He knows that there are other people out there whose desires threaten to interfere with his plans. In a low voice he hurries through the phrase though we will be met by dark forces that will test our resolve. The stock Churchillian phrase rings true as an honest expression of the presidents own lack of certainty. What are the dark forces? Where do they come from? What do they want?
While it is easy to make fun of the president, the truth is that the murk that fogs his sub-Clintonian rhetoric is close kin to the democratic platitudes spun by his predecessor. Maybe some will run for office and say, vote for me, I look forward to blowing up America. I dont know, I dont know if that will be their platform or not, explained President George Bush about Hezbollah at a news conference at the White House on March 16, 2006. I think people who generally run for office say, vote for me, Im looking forward to fixing your potholes, or making sure you got bread on the table. From Baghdad to Beirut, the results of pushing procedural democracy in the Middle East havent been in any way ambiguous; theyve empowered the darkest forces in the region.
On the landing outside the delegates entrance, I find Lady Catherine Ashton, the foreign minister of the European Union, meeting with Boris Tadic, the president of Serbia, who is drinking in the oxygen of connection to European institutions. I wait patiently for them to finish and try to ask Ashton a question about Obamas speech and the Middle East. Her look might belong to an English lady who has found a cockroach in her teacup.
Downstairs, the president has arrived late to lunch with the assembled world leaders. They dine on gold tablecloths, at places set with three glasses each for wine and water, and an appetizer of pâté on toast.
Raising his water glass, the American president quotes Franklin Roosevelt: Peace can endure only so long as humanity really insists upon it and is willing to work for it and sacrifice for it. His obeisance to the tough war leader who forced the British and French to cough up their empires so that America could rule the planet is a promising sign”except that Obama seems to believe that Roosevelt was a kind of saintly humanitarian who might have occupied his time responding to terrible earthquakes in Haiti and floods in Pakistan, embarking on peacekeeping missions, and focusing the worlds attention on the upcoming referenda in Sudan.
With two more hours to kill, I decide to treat myself to an expensive lunch up First Avenue, at an ultra-pricey Japanese restaurant called Megu, but I never get there. Turning the corner, I run into an exotic menagerie of protestors. There are signs extending a warm welcome to Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president of Sri Lanka who crushed the Tamil Tigers. There are yellow-and-red-clad practitioners of Falun Dafa, the outlawed Chinese meditative practice. Behind them is a tempestuous rally in support of something called the Iranian Solidarity Congress, which turns out to be the Peoples Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), the outlawed Iranian political party that the Bush administration labeled terrorists for setting off bombs inside Iran. Large banners read Down with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Free Masoud Rajavi, the groups leader.
Addressing the crowd is former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. We need to remind the U.N. what it stands for, Giuliani thunders from the stage. You and your cause are the best hope for Iran.
The PMOI, Giuliani says, have been imprisoned and slaughtered by a regime that has no right to exist. Now, Giuliani continues, we need a Ronald Reagan to cry out to the oppressors: Tear down the wall of tyranny and oppression. Tear down the wall of terrorism and slaughter. The crowd of Iranian exiles chants deliriously, Yes, yes, yes, yes as Giuliani lays out the theory at the heart of his rhetoric. Bullies thrive on weakness . . . they know only one thing: strength. They must be confronted by Americas strength.
Backstage at the rally I find former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, here to deliver a speech, who is being shown graphic pictures from an encyclopedia of torture and murder. Look at this, a balding PMOI functionary says softly, raising the heavy volume closer to eye level to give Bolton nowhere else to look. A whole family murdered. A mother, father, four children. He flips to another page, to another ghastly photo. This is a technique used in concentration camps, the functionary explains. In his pin-striped suit, button-down blue-striped shirt, and gold-rimmed glasses, Bolton seems uncomfortably out of his element.
Standing next to me is a solitary Iranian man whose long fingers and sensitive features contrast with his cheap sports jacket and immaculately pressed gray pants”the drab uniform of the exile who lives by manual labor in a strange country. His face and hair are clean, but his chin is still covered in stubble, as if he meant to shave but ran out of time. The unfathomable sadness of his brown eyes identifies him as a victim of torture. His name, he tells me, is Mustafa Naderi, and he spent twelve years in prison, including five years in solitary confinement. Now he works in an iron shop in Vancouver.
He was arrested, he says, at age seventeen, for selling an opposition newspaper. After his arrest he was tortured in Tehrans Evin Prison for eight months. He was suspended from the ceiling by his arms and beaten with electric cables. You are against Islam, and based on Khomeinis ruling, your blood is OK, his jailers told him before they beat him. Whoever tortures you will go to heaven.
I ask him whether the people who tortured him believed in the regime. In the beginning they would make regular people who served the regime torture the prisoners, in order to show their loyalty, he says. But the party regulars never lasted long, and toughs from the streets soon replaced them. In the fall of 1988 Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa pronouncing political opposition to the state a crime worthy of death. An estimated thirty thousand political prisoners were executed in accordance with the fatwa. At sunset we would sit and count the shots to see how many people were executed that night, he remembers. In October one night we counted three thousand shots. Of the twelve thousand people who were in the prison at the time he arrived, he says, perhaps 250 were still there when he left. Most of the others were killed.
Naderi believes Iran will continue to develop a nuclear weapons program no matter what threats and enticements the West offers. They know that the nuclear program is the only thing preventing extra pressure on the regime from outside, he explains. Developing a nuclear bomb is their number-one goal in order to ensure their own survival. Negotiations, he believes, only strengthen a repressive regime that sucks the blood from the Iranian people. In the face of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the failed American military occupation and state-building exercises in Iraq and Afghanistan, he explains, the regime feels confident that Americas threats are hollow.
Seeing that I am interested in victims of torture, he departs and returns a few minutes later with a woman named Mina Entezari, who was held in the womens part of Evin Prison and later in Ghezel Hesar Prison for a total of eight years. We were in section 240 of Evin Prison. The executions were held on the other side of the wall of our section, she remembers. You could see the smoke from the rifles. It was a nightmare. One woman who was in our section, they tortured her brutally. She was unable to walk. They took her from our cell in a wheelchair and took her out that way to be executed. Her name was Azadeh Tabib. She had three children. There was also a teenage girl in our section who was very pretty. They brutally beat her and repeatedly raped her before she was executed. When they tortured us, they would call us bad names. They told us that we were bad people who deserved what was happening to us. Any particular emotion she might feel at these memories is lost in the effort of finding the right words to tell her story. They told my mother that they had executed me, and she had a heart attack in front of the prison.
The suggestion that Iran will negotiate away its nuclear bomb elicits only a slight shrug of her slender shoulders. Its just killing time, she says numbly. This regime is based on suppression. They are killing people.
Bolton delivers his speech in a boring, reasonable tone. After he is done, he stands in front of microphones from Al Jazeera, New York One, and Fox News to fire off sound bites. I ask Bolton whether Americas decision in 2007 to pursue the surge in Iraq essentially took the threat of using military force to stop Iranian nuclear weapons development off the table. Since Iran could turn the surges success into a failure anytime it wanted, the surge made the United States hostage to Iranian ambition.
The issue is a long course of failure in stopping the Iranian march toward a nuclear bomb, Bolton responds.
A failure that includes the Bush administration, in which you served as ambassador to the U.N., I suggest.
Bolton bristles for a moment, then shrugs. Absolutely, yeah, he answers. He is a logical person. He knows in his heart that the bad guys have already won.
I head upstairs to the press gallery for the afternoon session and am ushered into a front-row seat. Underneath my shirt I am wearing a green-on-white T-shirt that reads Democracy for Iran. I promised one of the former political prisoners that I would wear it during Mahmoud Ahmadinejads speech. The first speaker, His Excellency Mikheil Saakashvili, President of Georgia, steps down and departs, leaving the chair empty for His Excellency the President of Iran.
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, all praise be to Allah, the translator intones through my headphones. During his first appearance on this podium two years ago, Ahmadinejad wore a cheap, ill-fitting jacket, playing up his image as a poor kid who came up from the hard streets of what could be any third-world city. This year he has chosen a respectable dark suit and a blue shirt with no tie, like a lecturer at a good university.
I wish to begin by commemorating those who lost their lives in the horrible flood in Pakistan, he says, bowing his head in pious obedience to God. That business out of the way, he moves on to announce the imminent demise of the capitalist system and the existing world order, which marks only the latest chapter in the eternal contest between the perfection of an all-inclusive religion and the work of the greedy whose opposition to Hazrat Jesus and Hazrat Muhammad has branded them as the eternal and unchanging opponents of the good. Before the leaders of the assembled nations, a great many of whom have found other things to do with their time, he mourns the fact that man is reduced to a creature restricted by the materialistic world. This odd fusion of religious dogma with the rhetoric of the Frankfurt School is characteristic of Ahmadinejads speeches to Western audiences. The historical dialectic as he understands it is shaped by the widespread clash of the egoist with the divine values that are, apparently, incarnate in himself. His goal here is to undermine the legitimacy of the global institutions that falsely promise to bring about peace, security, and the realization of human rights”promises that he spits at daily in the name of God, truth, justice, fairness, national self-determination, the people of Palestine and Iraq, and whatever else comes to mind.
The point of his polymorphous approach is not to present a coherent argument for his faith or foreign policy but rather to fracture the legitimacy of whatever language might be used to oppose Irans development of nuclear weapons. He deploys a counterlanguage that aims to cancel out the claims that might be posed by the more familiar language of morality and human rights.
Of course the main purpose of Ahmadinejads discourse is to inspire fear. His counterlanguage is simply a tool to heighten the disorientation that the listener feels in the presence of a maniac. He presents two different views on the events of September 11, 2001. First, that the attacks were perpetrated by a very powerful and successful terrorist group, a theory that Ahmadinejad clearly suggests, by his demeanor, to be patently ridiculous, since there is no such thing as an independently powerful terrorist group. He is an authority of sorts: All the major terrorist groups in his neck of the woods receive their weapons, training, funding, and instruction directly from Tehran.
The second explanation, he says, is that some segments of the U.S. government orchestrated the attack in order to save the Zionist regime. The goal here is not for listeners to believe what he says is true but only for them to believe that some part may be true. After all, he does not say the U.S. government but, merely, some segments, thereby appealing to the experience of those leaders in the hall whose intelligence services regularly go rogue to advance their own agendas. The majority of American people support this view, he continues”an opinion that may be taken as evidence of his separation from reality or may simply reflect the bad information he has received from his own intelligence service. A thorough investigation should have been conducted by independent groups, he suggests.
I wriggle out of my suit jacket and hang it over the back of my seat. Then I casually unbutton my shirt so that the motto Democracy for Iran, written in English and Farsi on my T-shirt, is perhaps distantly visible. I have kept my promise to the girl who was tortured.
They burn the Quran to burn all these truths and good judgments, Ahmadinejad is saying. Holding up a Quran and a Bible, he adds them to the prop-memento collection at the U.N. General Assembly, which includes Yasser Arafats empty gun holster and Evo Morales coca leaf. The floor of the General Assembly is half empty, I notice, with even the Iran-friendly Turkish table manned by a single junior staffer, and the members of the Qatari delegation chatter among themselves. The press gallery is full.
Skipping at random from one mode of speech to another, Ahmadinejad makes a mockery of them all”declaring, in effect, that the only thing that counts is his will to power. In the future, he promises, the people free from selfishness will take up the management of the world, which will be governed by the perfect human.
The translator at this point seems unable to follow Ahmadinejads language and starts to stammer. The perfect human, she repeats. The perfect human. She is stalling for time, just like the rest of the world. The reason this phrase in particular gives her so much trouble is because the phrase has no meaning in the vocabulary of rational discourse. At the same time, having listened to the rest of his speech and repeated it word for word in accordance with her training, she knows that a proper translation must exist.
Peace be upon you. Ahmadinejad waves, with his palm held outward. From the stage wings comes loud applause from a claque of scruffy-looking men and women in black chadors.
I exit the hall and go up to the press liaison desk to confirm, for the third time, that Ahmadinejads press conference has indeed been canceled. The U.N. press officer nods dully but then perks up. The Iranians are gathering by the elevator, she says. Why dont you follow them? They probably know something. I acquire a U.N. handler and enter the elevator with the Iranian presidents handpicked team of reporters from the countrys state-controlled media. I ask one of them if Ahmadinejad is going to make a statement, and at first the man pretends not to speak English. Then he laughs at me. Do you think he needs to make a statement? he asks, grandly. What more could he possibly add after his statement in the hall today?
I smile at him; the presence of the entire Iranian press delegation crowded into the elevator is proof that hes lying. When the elevator opens, I follow the pack through a secure door and into the windowless labyrinth of editing rooms and broadcast facilities beneath the Secretariat building. We enter Studio H, where exposed cables hang from the ceiling and two chairs have been set up against a brightly lit background in preparation for a tête- -tête.
Sir, you will have to leave, the U.N. handler says suddenly. The correspondent from the Jerusalem Post has also tagged along. Her too, the handler adds. She grabs my arm. This is only for the members of the Iranian media. You have to leave.
You led me down here, I answer. I just want to hear what he is saying. Look at all the other reporters here, I say, pointing to two women in black chadors, texting on their cell phones in Farsi.
This is a press conference only for Iranian reporters, she says. Its an exclusive press conference.
No, thats silly, I answer. There is no such thing as a press conference that is exclusive to reporters from one country.
Yes, there is, she answers. Her grip tightens on my arm.
No, there is not. I have been to many press conferences.
Here at the U.N. we do have exclusive press conferences for reporters from one country. And if you dont leave right now, she threatens, I will call security and have you escorted out of here.
You dont have to do that, I suggest.
Are you leaving?
Then Im calling security.
The head of the U.N. press office walks over to see what the fuss is about and tells us we can stay just as two armed security guards in flak jackets enter the room to throw us out. We are allowed to stay. An elegant-looking Iranian man in a good suit comes by, accompanied by a burly press minder, to check our affiliations. The Jerusalem Post woman turns her badge around. I calculate that my journalistic interests will be best served by not protesting any further when they throw her out two minutes from now.
You cant be here, the suave Iranian says, wagging his finger at her: naughty, naughty. You have to leave. She leaves. A few minutes later a different Iranian comes for me. This time its the minder, with his Saddam mustache, big shoulders, and noticeable gut.
You get out, he says, jabbing his fingers at my chest. Get out of here. He is thugging me in the basement of the U.N., in the middle of my own country, in the center of the city where I was born. I look at him for a moment and realize that everything that happens from this moment on is free of charge.
Go bully people in your own country, I tell him, adding some advice about where he can stick his finger. The enthusiasm for a fight has gone out of his eyes, so I decide to press my advantage. Show me your badge, I instruct him, so I can put your name in the newspaper. He turns his badge around, just like the Jerusalem Post reporter.
The head of the U.N. press operation who rescued me before reminds me of my promise to leave if the Iranian delegation requested that I go. I tell her Im happy to leave if anyone from the Iranian delegation asks me to leave. As far as I know, this guy is a television producer trying to protect his exclusive, I explain. She nods.
I want him to get out of here, the man repeats.
Dont talk to me like that in my own country, I tell him. When I come to visit Iran, you can be rude to me there. Eventually, he shows a badge to the U.N. press coordinator that identifies him as a representative of the government of Iran.
I leave the room and slip into the control room, where I watch Ahmadinejad being prepared for the Iranian media event. As he looks off into the distance, he refuses to let anyone put makeup on his face. The thug runs into the control room. Something is wrong that must be fixed immediately. He looks desperate. I look at him, but he doesnt notice that I am there. I am about to gloat, and then I think about Evin Prison. Even torturers have families who mourn when their sons, husbands, and fathers are tortured. Its their turn today, and its your turn tomorrow. The thumbscrews, electric cables, and rack are of vanishing insignificance when compared with the promise of the absolute justice that will be imposed by the Perfect Human.
Ahmadinejad looks into the camera with a ghastly smile, preparing for the moment when the light comes on. The interview starts. Obama delivered a light and immature talk, Ahmadinejad says, adding, It is inappropriate to think he can or they can or anyone can order the world around. He is clearly not much interested in listening to Obama or anyone else. He is interested in building a nuclear bomb.
The face of the man on the television monitor is familiar to anyone who saw the horror movie of the twentieth century, in which political leaders created a new vocabulary to license murder. The ideologues are with us still. Their ambition is not the hope of everlasting life but the promise of death”the other great force that motivates human thought and action. The numbers say that Iran is a doomed society headed toward total economic, educational, demographic, and military collapse, run by a pack of medieval clerics and functioning on stolen software from the West that can easily be hacked. After the Iranians get a nuclear bomb, they will wave it around; and then, sooner or later, they will be tempted to use it and hope the big noise might precipitate the rule of the Perfect Human. If it doesnt, at least they will be dead in the midst of their enemies.
Watching Ahmadinejads face flicker in the darkened room, I think of all the bomb shelters that are being built throughout the Middle East. A basic test of the decency of any international system would be whether it allowed a man like this to get his hands on a means of killing hundreds of thousands of human beings in the hope of making the world a more perfect place.
David Samuels is a contributing editor at Harper s magazine and writes frequently for The Atlantic , the New Yorker, and other publications. His most recent book is The Runner .
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