Magazine | November 11, 2013, Issue


Ali Khamenei: Not my Supreme Leader. Yours? (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
The tricky business of addressing or referring to an unsavory foreign leader

In his recent address at the U.N., President Obama referred to Ali Khamenei, the head ayatollah in Iran. Each time, he referred to him as “the Supreme Leader.” He did not even say his name: just “Supreme Leader.” Was that really necessary, for the president of the United States? Those who control Iran may refer to Khamenei as “Supreme Leader” — but do democratic leaders, such as Obama, have to follow suit?

Two months after he became president, in 2009, Obama sent Nowruz greetings to Iran. (Nowruz is the Persian new year.) His predecessor, George W. Bush, had sent such greetings too. But Bush made clear that he was sending them to the people. Obama sent them to “the people and leaders” of Iran. He also referred to the country — twice — as “the Islamic Republic of Iran,” as the mullahs style the country. Iranian democrats, many of whom are in jail, don’t see it that way.

John Bolton, a U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under Bush, puts it plainly: You call Iran “the Islamic Republic” when you want to “kiss their posterior” (i.e., the rulers’ posterior). There may come a time for such smooching. Otherwise, a simple “Iran” will do.

Little stylistic touches, which may seem nothing to us in the Free World, can mean a lot to those in unfree places. President Reagan declared 1983 the “Year of the Bible,” which is the kind of thing that causes snickers in the West. But it was no laughing matter in the Gulag. Somehow, Natan Sharansky — or Anatoly Shcharansky, as he was then — heard about it. He studied the Bible with a fellow prisoner, for as long as authorities allowed. The two zeks (prisoners) called their sessions “Reaganite readings.”

In 1984, the inimitable William F. Buckley Jr. began a column, “I want to know one very simple thing: Why do non-totalitarian leaders embrace totalitarian leaders?” He did not mean “embrace” in a metaphorical sense. He wrote, “I am staring at a picture of two men smiling at each other, their arms about each other, their noses not two inches separated. Any closer, and they’d have skirted sodomy.” The picture showed Felipe González, the prime minister of Spain, greeting the Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro, at Madrid’s airport.

As a rule, dictators crave the legitimacy that democratic statesmen can confer. They crave the mere rubbing of shoulders. At the U.N. in 2002, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat wanted to be up close and personal with President Bush. Elliott Abrams captures the moment in his recent memoir, Tested by Zion: The secretary of state, Colin Powell, “served as defensive tackle, literally pushing Arafat back when he tried to get into a photo with Bush as the president moved down a General Assembly corridor.” At the latest U.N. gathering, President Obama was eager to meet Iran’s “president,” Hassan Rouhani. The Iranian snubbed him. But he later consented to a phone call with the American.

Referring to Rouhani, I have put “president” in quotation marks, because “president” is one of those titles that non-democrats, or anti-democrats, like to claim for themselves. It puts them on equal footing with, say, the president of the United States. For decades, two stylistic touches rankled Cubans: We in free countries called Castro “President Castro” (a designation he formally relinquished several years ago), and we called him, as we still do, “Fidel.” This first-naming suggests a certain warmth or admiration. (True, the first-naming may be more justifiable now, seeing that the older brother has elevated the younger, Raúl, to prominence.)

In Iran, they have had just two Supreme Leaders since the Islamist revolution in 1979. Before Khamenei was Khomeini. President Carter addressed a letter to him “Dear Ayatollah Khomeini” — a respectful, unfawning salutation.

Moving back to Latin America, the late Hugo Chávez was a “president” — president of Venezuela — but he was more accurately described as a “presidential dictator,” or a “strongman.” When they met in 2009, Obama was all warmth to him. He gave Chávez a soul-brother handshake and called him “mi amigo,” his friend. Afterward, Chávez was complimentary, saying of Obama, “He is a very intelligent man, young, and he is black.”

In 1984 — the same year Bill Buckley wrote his above-quoted column — ten Democrats in Congress sent a somewhat infamous letter to the head of the Nicaraguan junta, Daniel Ortega. “Dear Comandante,” it began. Republicans hooted at this salutation. Challenged on a television show, Stephen Solarz, one of the Democrats, threw up his hands, grinned a little, and said, “But that’s his title!” The phrase “Dear Comandante” entered the Republican lexicon, signifying an overly friendly overture to bad actors.

Just for the record, Ali Khamenei is not the only “Supreme Leader” in the world. The North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, has that title too. I don’t believe that President Obama has referred to him that way. About Moammar Qaddafi, we used to joke that, after all his years as dictator, he was still known as “Colonel.” When would he give himself a promotion? But he had other titles: “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya” was one; “Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” was another. (A little cumbersome.)

We have not had emperors for a while. Haile Selassie was one, ruling Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974. His complete mouthful was “His Imperial Majesty, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia, Elect of God.” Toasting him in 1963, President Kennedy called him “Your Majesty.” Jean-Bédel Bokassa set himself up as Emperor of Central Africa (quite a rise from army private). He was overthrown in 1979.

In addition to being the “Supreme Leader,” Kim Jong-un is “First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.” Usually, we referred to the head of the Soviet Union as “general secretary” — the general secretary of the Communist party. In his last year on top, Gorbachev enjoyed the title “president.” The late Robert D. Novak had an admirable practice: In his columns, he would refer to the Soviet No. 1 as “party boss” — as in “party boss Mikhail Gorbachev.” That saw the situation clearly. Gorbachev (or Chernenko or Andropov or Brezhnev, etc.) was the boss of a party, and therefore he was boss of the country in a one-party dictatorship.

#page#Like his Soviet counterparts, Pol Pot was the “general secretary” of his Communist party, in Cambodia. But his fellow Khmer Rouge, his fellow genocidalists, referred to him warmly as “Brother No. 1.” (A man named Nuon Chea was Brother No. 2, and so on down the hierarchy.)

Sometimes, a U.S. president will withhold a title altogether — he may say “Mr.” This is “a way to suggest criticism,” says Marlin Fitzwater, who was press secretary to Presidents Reagan and Bush 41. Fitzwater adds that Lyndon Johnson would “misspell or mispronounce the names of leaders he didn’t like.” Bush 41 persistently pronounced Saddam Hussein’s first name “Sodom,” a pronunciation the Iraqi dictator apparently didn’t appreciate. (Formally, Hussein, like so many other dictators, was “president.”)

In Saudi Arabia, there are a great many princes. How many? I think of what a lady from Salzburg said when asked, “How many Habsburgs are there in Austria today?” She answered, “As many as there are gas stations in America.” An official in a Republican White House decided he would not call these guys “Prince” or “Your Majesty,” as his colleagues did. He did not want to endorse the Saudi system, so to speak. So, presented with the Saudis’ foreign minister, for example, he’d say, “Hello, Mr. Minister, so good to see you.” No one ever squawked or murmured.

More important than what to call a leader, sometimes, is what to call a country. Take “Burma” versus “Myanmar.” When they seized power in the 1980s, the junta changed the name of the country to “Myanmar.” The democratic opposition has clung to “Burma.” It is the policy of the U.S. government to say “Burma,” along with them. But on his visit to the country last year, Obama said “Myanmar,” as a diplomatic courtesy. This is understandable (especially in light of Burma’s nascent liberalization).

In the U.N., John Bolton points out, a government can call the country it represents whatever it wants. They’ll get that name on the nameplate. But other governments don’t have to play along. “I never said ‘Myanmar,’ only ‘Burma,’ just to tick them off, frankly.” (This was in pre-liberalization days, when the Burmese government deserved no courtesy.)

The genocidalists of the Khmer Rouge renamed Cambodia “Democratic Kampuchea.” East Germany, or Communist Germany, called itself “the German Democratic Republic.” Many people, including Americans broadcasting the Olympic Games, were happy to play along. Others noted that “German Democratic Republic” was three lies in one: The eastern half of Germany was neither democratic nor a republic, and it was not strictly German, given rule from Moscow. The totalitarians in North Korea call that country “the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” These words may be considered tip-offs for dictatorship.

In October 1941, FDR wrote to Stalin. Three and a half months before, the Nazis had broken their pact with the Soviets, leaving Stalin in the unexpected position of Western ally. “My Dear Mr. Stalin,” was Roosevelt’s salutation. Most of the time, our president referred to Hitler as “Hitler,” though sometimes he said “Herr Hitler.” Churchill, too, would say “Herr Hitler.” Once, he said, “Hitler, with his tattered lackey, Mussolini, at his tail . . .”

Diplomacy and statecraft require all sorts of nose-holding, flattery, and lies. In particular circumstances, it might be wise for a U.S. president to grant Ali Khamenei “Supreme Leader.” If this gesture helps to prevent the Iranian regime’s acquisition of nukes, well and good. But if it is merely gratuitous, it is offensive — grotesque. Remember, the Iranian regime is one that stones girls to death for the “crime” of having been gang-raped.

In his 1984 column, Bill Buckley proposed a plank for the Republican-party platform, mainly tongue in cheek: “No American President should embrace any world leader responsible for the death and/or torture and/or imprisonment of more than 0.01 per cent of his people.” He said that, for short, we could call it “the Osculation Clause.” (“Osculation,” a Buckleyesque word, refers to kissing or “close contact.”) No rule can be made for titles — for what to call tyrants, or frontmen for tyranny. Democratic statesmen ought to go with taste, nose, gut. But, again: Avoid the gratuitous. No flattering titles for free.

One winter in Davos, I had a memorable experience, where titles are concerned. A group of journalists were meeting with Ahmed Nazif, then the Egyptian prime minister. He was introduced as “His Excellency,” and the journalists from the Middle East were addressing him as “Your Excellency.” I thought this was a little curious, since the Egyptian government was very keen to be seen as democratic. Happy to be the brash Yank, I said to Nazif, “How did the prime minister of Egypt come to be called ‘His Excellency’?” The Davos official overseeing the meeting looked at me with fiery hatred, as though he wanted to kill me.

But Nazif gave me sort of a grin and said, with a twinkle in his eye, “Well, 50 years ago it was ‘Pasha.’”

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