The God-King View of the Presidency
President Obama shook hands with Cuban dictator Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral yesterday. Memorials for iconic world leaders seem to always produce such incidents - for example, the 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II saw Israeli president Moshe Katsav shake hands with Iranian president Mohammed Khatami. (Born two years and about an hour’s drive apart in central Iran, the two leaders found themselves seated just feet from one another, and had an exchange in Persian.) Katsav and Khatami came under fire for their alleged grip-and-grin, with Khatami quoted denying the encounter in the official press - “This claim is like other baseless claims made by the Zionist media in the past.” And Obama’s brief grab with the lesser Castro brought criticism, too - Cuban American congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called it “nauseating” and “a propaganda coup for the tyrant,” while Senator Marco Rubio said that Obama “should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba.”
Ros-Lehtinen and Rubio were echoing a theme in the U.S. foreign-policy discussion: What level of nicety should the president show to nasty leaders? It has to be more than zero: after all, if diplomats could never meet with those with whom we don’t get along, the most important diplomacy could not be done. Our embassies would shutter themselves, to be replaced with Bureaus of Consular Affairs, Cultural Relations and Cocktails. Yet Ros-Lehtinen is right that it can sometimes be a mistake for an American president to meet publicly with another head of state. America is not merely one country among many - mighty in its own right, it also heads the world’s most powerful network of alliances and commands significant moral authority. Little could prove a leader’s importance more than an audience with the leader of the free world.
Conversely, as the head of a sovereign and powerful state, our president must never appear deferential to other leaders, especially not to enemies; given the utility of America’s reputation as a generally benevolent country, our president should also avoid needlessly tarnishing that reputation. And when fragile or multiple governments hold authority, the questions become thornier. To give up on the fading Republic of China in 1949 would have been a stab in the back to an ally; to continue to recognize Taipei as the legitimate government of all China in 2013 would be a pointless absurdity.
A recent article by Jay Nordlinger in National Review took the preservation of presidential pomp to excess. Nordlinger complained that several of Obama’s recent statements on Iran have referred to Ali Khamenei as the “Supreme Leader.” “Was that really necessary, for the president of the United States?...[Obama] 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.” Nordlinger goes on, “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.”
This being a nation which, unlike Iran, has a free press, Nordlinger may refer to Khamenei, Iran and Rouhani however he pleases. Yet it would be silly for the U.S. government to follow his lead - rather than avoiding deference, it would be avoiding reality. The government of Iran has been in continuous power for more than three decades, surviving a horrific war, economic ruin and internal intrigue. For better, but mostly for worse, the regime is not going anywhere. Denial will not change it, and it is a needless source of friction in a relationship that already has enough troubles.
Further, refusing to recognize Iran’s government would send mixed signals. Rouhani rose to the presidency in an election which, for its many flaws, was at least not predetermined. And the governmental system that calls itself the “Islamic Republic” at least operates in vague accord with a constitution, and the man who calls himself Supreme Leader at least operates in vague accord with his position’s prescribed role in that constitution. Many countries cannot say this about their own systems. As vile and lawless as Iran’s actions often are, its present system of government offers a better foundation for eventual democracy than, say, Saudi Arabia’s.