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Ahmadinejad may be a madman, but we still need to talk to him

Return of the Iron Sheik

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The reaction to the recent speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University reminded me of a similar visit to New York City by another Iranian in 1984. Like Ahmadinejad, this man was denounced as a menace, anti-American, and evil incarnate. At 10 years old, I wanted nothing more than to see this monster wiped off the face of the earth. And thankfully, in the end, Hulk Hogan defeated the Iron Sheik at Madison Square Garden to win the WWF World Wrestling Championship belt.

While I make this comparison half in jest, I also make it half in earnest.

The flag-waving hatred directed at the Iron Sheik was similar to the patriotic indignation that surrounded Ahmadinejad's visit. It also exemplified a dangerous trend in U.S. diplomacy — our foreign policy continues to move closer to the good-versus-evil philosophy of professional wrestling and away from political sobriety.

While it is true that American leaders have long railed against international bogeymen, they have also negotiated with them. Syndicated columnist Pat Buchanan outlines a few key instances, pointing out that even though "Libya was a 'state sponsor of terror' and Col. Khadafi was responsible for Pan Am 103, the Lockerbie massacre," the Bush administration "negotiated a renewal of relations in return for Khadafi giving up his nuclear program."

Consorting with the enemy is not an activity limited to the Bush administration. Buchanan notes that Richard Nixon "went to Beijing to toast Mao Zedong, the greatest mass murderer in history," while "President Eisenhower rode up Pennsylvania Avenue in an open convertible with Nikita Khrushchev ... who, three years before his tour of the United States, had sent tanks into Budapest to butcher the patriots of the Hungarian Revolution."

Buchanan asks, "What has Ahmadinejad done to rival these monsters?"

He makes a good point. Next to Mao, Khadafi, and Khrushchev, does Ahmadinejad even compare?

Some have chosen to focus on the fact that Ahmadinejad is an unabashed anti-Semite. This is undoubtedly true. But isn't the anger between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East at least understandable? Generations of Southerners in this country have been cursing those "damn Yankees" up North ever since they invaded and occupied our own region. Sensible people can support Israel, Palestine, or both, and yet still understand this historical tension.

Some have chosen to focus on Iran's oppressive government, which Ahmadinejad supports in conjunction with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the phrases "oppressive government" and "Middle East" appear together as frequently as "shrimp" and "grits," and Iran is certainly no more oppressive than countless Arab dictatorships the U.S. considers allies. In 2003, Parade magazine ranked Saudi Arabia's King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah as the second worst dictatorship in the world, right between North Korea's Kim Jong Il (No. 1) and Iraq's Saddam Hussein (No. 3). When Fahd died in 2005, President Bush called the remaining dictator Abdullah to express his condolences.

My intent is not to defend the president of Iran, who, in Iran's political system, is much less powerful than our own president, but to highlight the indefensible in my own country. Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire," then met with Mikhail Gorbachev and shook his hand. Today, leaders like Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton are beating their chests, pounding their podiums, and telling us such reasonable diplomacy is impossible when dealing with "madmen" like Ahmadinejad. Like Hulkamania decades before, it seems presidential campaign pandering is "runnin' wild."

By creating a new bogeyman and ignoring common sense, our leaders are consciously constructing a scenario that might serve as a pretext to justify invading Iran. We were once told that Saddam Hussein was capable of becoming the "next Hitler," which turned out to be a lie, and now the exact same leaders are beginning to say the same thing about Ahmadinejad.

The reality we create is the reality we must endure. And when Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik fooled me as a child, the biggest risk involved was the price of admission. But when our government and their accomplices take us for fools, the risk of American health, security, and lives is a price that — I pray we have learned by now — is much too expensive and too hard to bear.

Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the "Morning Buzz with Richard Todd" on 1250 AM WTMA.

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