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    Middle East
     May 9, 2008

Undiplomatically yours
By Sreeram Chaulia

NEW YORK - What is common among the political leaders of Iran, North Korea, China and Venezuela? These world figures spout venomous rhetoric in uninhibited tones that defy the norms of diplomatic conduct. Their public comments against foreign foes are notorious for vitriol bereft of civility and subtlety - the two celebrated axioms of foreign policy.

Fiery, irreverent and provocative, their language never fails to turn heads and jar the ears. In an international system where the majority of heads of states and governments speak in codes and signs, these firebrands do not believe in mincing their words.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad leads the iconoclastic

brigade with overtly anti-Semitic lingo that sounds vituperative to Israel and its allies. In a speech delivered in October 2005, Ahmadinejad took a swipe at his Zionist archenemies as "disgraceful stains" that will be "eliminated". Two months later, he claimed that the Nazi holocaust of Jews was an "invented" myth for which the people of Palestine were being made to pay the price.

Although Iranian officials tried to make amends for these outbursts by insisting that their leader had been misunderstood and misquoted, Ahmadinejad's tempestuous words heightened tensions in the Middle East and reinforced the stereotypes that play into the hands of hardliners. The neo-conservatives in the United States had a field day whenever Ahmadinejad's verbal volleys hit the world press and they cited his harsh "genocidal" language as further justification for forcible regime change in Iran.

North Korea's "Dear Leader", Kim Jong-il, has his own trademark style of bizarre and unpredictable harangues against the West that buttress myths about his mental condition. Under his direction, the state media in Pyongyang have greatly enriched the lexicon of undiplomatic utterances.

In 2002, the official government newspaper, Nodong Sinmun, labeled then American Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a "babbler" prominent in the "belligerent [George W] Bush group". State-run radio broadcasts in North Korea are under Kim's directions to whip up anti-American frenzy and have castigated the US as a "criminal nuclear war fanatic". In 2004, Kim's government portrayed Bush as "a tyrant that puts Hitler in the shade" and a man whose advisers are "a typical gang of political gangsters".

Kim's no-holds-barred propagandist timbre has irritated the US, Japan and South Korea, inevitably spicing up an already hot political climate in East Asia. It has fueled impressions in the Western world that North Korea's leadership is dangerous, trigger happy, and one that cannot be trusted to honor diplomatic agreements. The regular ups and downs in US-North Korea relations over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions have a "wild card" quality because of Kim's extravagant language.

Although China's leaders have toned down their anti-Western propaganda with the onset of a more "pragmatic" and neo-liberal generation, their ire for Tibetan self-determination remains hateful and illogically vehement. The Dalai Lama has been subjected by the Chinese government and media to a never-abating barrage of expletives ranging from "treasonous snake" and a "wolf in monk's clothes" to a "monster with a human face and an animal's heart". While the rest of the world watches in perplexity at the abusive and foul choice of words for a great spiritual seer, the Chinese Communist Party and its officials revel in skewering him and his followers.

Sometimes, the Chinese capacity for vilifying Tibetan activists borders on the ludicrous. Following the mass unrest in March 2008, Beijing accused Tibetan youth organizations based in India of planning "suicide attacks" with the assistance of al-Qaeda. On the question of Taiwan too, Chinese leaders have unleashed violent words and images that harmed cross-strait relations. In 2004, senior Chinese General Liu Yuan declared that his forces would be "seriously on guard against threats from Taiwan independence terrorists".

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, renowned for combative and irascible language, has never flinched from attacking the US with utmost disdain. In February 2004, he referred to American president George W Bush as a pendejo (Spanish profanity) and followed it up a year later by criticizing US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as "completely illiterate" in her understanding of Latin America. Chavez's colorful and earthy Sunday radio program, Alo Presidente, often features lengthy tirades laced with ad hominem remarks on American and Israeli leaders.

In the 2006 UN General Assembly session, the veritable parliament of the world, Chavez called Bush "the devil" and raised more than eyebrows. The charismatic Venezuelan populist has frequently resorted to character assassination of his opponents in public, the most catchy being his labelling of Bush as "the biggest terrorist in the world today". Like Ahmadinejad, Chavez's blistering language has arguably added a personal bitterness to already antagonistic relations with the US.

Is there a calculated logic behind the unsavory language of some leaders in world politics? Aside from pumping adrenalin and conveying the message that they are ready to take on their rivals, the Iranian, North Korean, Chinese and Venezuelan governments are all self-professed revolutionary regimes opposed to the current world order. The language of revolutionaries carries a lethal denunciatory sharpness that is absent in countries governed by bourgeois elites.

Islamist, communist or Bolivarian revolutionaries envisage a world in which struggle and confrontation are necessary for progress and change. When the category of "class enemies" or "religious Satans" is extended beyond the confines of the revolutionary state, it is stuck on perceived imperialist or neo-colonial actors like the US which are seen as sabotaging the stability of the revolutionary regime. Indeed, for leaders like Chavez, there is concrete evidence to back anger at American intelligence involvement in fomenting coup d'etat attempts on legally elected governments.

Livid language can be a way for revolutionary regimes to mobilize maximum vigilance among their own populations against foreign overthrow or military invasion. This is as true today as it was in France after 1787 or Russia after 1917. The entire onus of revolutionary governments is to defend their hard-won victories by all means, including vicious propaganda, against the forces of "reaction" or "counter-revolution".

Undiplomatic statements are, of course, not the sole monopoly of leftist or radical world leaders. It is worth recalling that former US president Ronald Reagan condemned the Soviet Union as the "evil empire". At a press conference in 1987, he also pilloried Libyan supremo Muammar Gaddafi as "this mad dog of the Middle East". Bush's formulation of the "axis of evil" falls in the same category of politically incorrect and inflammatory language that achieves no positive purpose. Senator Hillary Clinton, the candidate for the US Democratic presidential nomination, recently vowed to "obliterate" Iran if it attacked Israel.

It is debatable whether language really matters. The norms of diplomacy, including words of gentility, can mask subterfuge and intrigue in deeds. The former colonized nations of the world nurse deep grudges about the hypocrisy of the West, which talks softly but wields the big stick to coerce unwilling but weak countries. One could legitimately argue that the spoken broadsides of an Ahmadinejad or a Kim Jong-il are less harmful than the military invasions and assaults of a George W Bush.

"Rogue states" is a particularly derogatory term used by Western leaders to rally support for their numerous military and economic interventions in the developing world. Its antithesis is the so-called "civilized world" (read the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its allies), which will not tolerate the misdemeanors of these "rogues". Stormy language is not a benchmark for judging whether a state being targeted by the West is a "rogue", but it adds to the folklore of certain countries being beyond the pale of civilization. Undiplomatic language is thus a mirror not only of inter-state schisms but also of the racism inherent in world politics.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University, New York.

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