Why the Firebrands Get Heard

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, September 22, 2006

My but the lesser nations are getting uppity.

I do love that word, uppity. Once upon a time, it was used to describe a black person who didn't know his place. The word came back to me this week as I heard all that impertinent oratory at the United Nations, most of it aimed at the United States in general and George W. Bush in particular.

Did Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez actually call Bush the devil? And then ostentatiously cross himself? And then complain that the podium, where Bush had spoken a day earlier, still smelled of sulfur? That's exactly what he did.

And as Chavez continued his monologue, calling Bush a "world dictator" who "looks at your color, and he says, 'Oh, there's an extremist,' " his audience of world leaders laughed and applauded. Clearly, Chavez had ignored the flashing yellow lights and crashed straight through the guardrails of diplomatic propriety. Clearly, this was no way to speak about the president of the United States. But Chavez, who hosts his own weekly talk show back home in Caracas, had his audience in the palm of his hand.

Afterward, U.N. Ambassador John Bolton did what the diplomatic playbook said he had to do and refused to dignify Chavez's tirade with a response. But while his words were measured, it was hard to look at the anger in his eyes and not think of Yosemite Sam wishing he could blow that varmint to smithereens.

Chavez was so arch in manner and so extreme in his personal attacks on Bush that it's tempting to write him off as crazy, although I tend to think he's crazy like a fox. Can anyone name the last president of Venezuela, or remember when a speech by any president of Venezuela made such news? Still, Chavez may have gone so far that he hurt his chances of securing a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council, where he would be harder to ignore.

But the uppity leader who spoke Tuesday evening, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, is another story. Like Chavez (his new best friend), Ahmadinejad controls a sizable fraction of the world's oil supply. Unlike Chavez, he has advanced nuclear technology and almost surely is working to build nuclear weapons. And also unlike Chavez -- perhaps because he is on the verge of having a very big stick -- he speaks softly, at least in the tone of his voice.

Ahmadinejad's was actually the more uppity speech, because what he seeks is nothing less than to remake the world.

"The prevailing order of contemporary global interaction is such that certain powers equate themselves with the international community and consider their decisions superseding that of over 180 countries," he said. "They consider themselves the masters and rulers of the entire world and other nations as only second-class in the world order. . . . Is it appropriate to expect this generation to submit to the decisions and arrangements established over half a century ago?"

That's pretty clear. Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier who presides over one of the world's most repressive and misogynistic regimes, is determined to rearrange the furniture. Since the Soviet bloc collapsed, the West -- led by the United States -- has pretty much had its way. Ahmadinejad is determined to create an alternative focus of power and influence, and he has the faith of the fanatical true believer in his ability to succeed.

Really, this should be no contest. Given a choice between a manifestly imperfect but open and dynamic society such as ours and a retrograde theocracy such as Iran, where free thought is stifled and repressive laws have the imprimatur of unimpeachable holy writ, who would freely choose the latter?

Yet Ahmadinejad is being listened to, and not only because of Iran's oil. When I travel outside the country, I'm struck by the decline in America's moral standing in the world. The Iraq war is the main reason, but not the only one. For all its talk about public diplomacy and spreading the U.S. gospel throughout the world, the Bush administration does an appallingly lousy job of it. Even our government's genuine good deeds -- vastly increased funding to fight AIDS in Africa, for example, which has saved countless lives -- go largely unrecognized.

Our policy of not even talking to governments we don't like has proved counterproductive -- pushing Syria closer to Iran, for example, and needlessly prolonging the Israel-Hezbollah war, to no one's benefit except perhaps Ahmadinejad's. Our arrogance has turned us into the neighborhood bully and made our adversaries look like more sympathetic figures than they really are.

We have to do better. Hugo Chavez shouldn't be received as the new Dave Chappelle.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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