Insult-laden diplomacy

Is the United States in a strong position to criticize inflammatory and insulting rhetoric between heads of state?

Published September 21, 2006 1:21PM (EDT)

Certain points regarding Hugo Chavez's speech at the United Nations on Wednesday ought to be beyond real dispute. For instance, most people should be able readily to agree that for a head of state to call another head of state the "devil" and say that he leaves behind a whiff of sulfur falls short of the ideal model of diplomatic decorum. But one can legitimately question the extent to which the United States is in a position to invoke and enforce such precepts of diplomatic propriety.

Just last week, Republican Sen. George Voinovich, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke at a committee hearing on Iran and, according to Reuters, "compared Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler and made fun of his name on Tuesday during a congressional hearing." Voinovich said: "Ahmadinejad -- I call him Ahmad-in-a-head -- I think he's a Hitler type of person."

President Bush, of course, famously labeled Iran, Iraq and North Korea part of the "Axis of Evil" and recently began using the term "Islamic fascists" in campaign speeches to describe America's enemies. Meanwhile, Bush officials and their supporters have been repeatedly invoking the now-standard rhetorical tactic of comparing America's enemies, including other heads of state, to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi threat.

American protests over the improper tone of Chavez's speech were led by U.N. ambassador John Bolton, who decried the "comic book approach to international affairs" and, without any trace of irony, scoffed that nobody above the level of "junior note-taker" was paying attention to what Chavez said. Bolton, of course, was sent to be America's ambassador to the world despite having once contended that "if the U.N. secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference," and despite almost single-handedly destroying American nuclear weapons negotiations with North Korea by calling Kim Jong Il, on the eve of the talks, a "tyrannical dictator" and the leader of an "evil regime."

None of this is to suggest a substantive equivalency between the U.S. and North Korea or Iran. But purely from a perspective of diplomatic etiquette, while it is certainly a level or two worse to make comments of this sort while addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations, the U.S. now routinely invokes precisely this sort of inflammatory, insult-laden dialogue when speaking of other countries and their leaders. Given the administration's propensity to call other governmental leaders evil, fascist and Hitler-esque, was Chavez's speech really such a radical departure from what has become a routine standard of political discourse between nations?

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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