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The Untouchable in the Room

08/28/2006 07:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When the North Koreans picked the Fourth of July to test six missiles, the date wasn't randomly chosen. Those missiles were rhetorically aimed at us, even if they can't literally reach our shores. The Kim Jon-il regime takes every opportunity to paint the United States in demonic terms. One saw masses of North Korean citizens lined up in blocs like soldiers while officials harangued them with propaganda, the chief item being that America had a nuclear strike poised against their country at this moment. To us, this sounds all but insane, and so does the anti-Semitic, anti-U.S., pro-nuclear ranting of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Our approach to the "axis of evil," which includes both countries, is to regard them as pariahs. We refuse to talk one-on-one with either Iran or North Korea. We demonize them almost as much as they demonize us. Coming from India, I can't help but be reminded that 'pariah' comes from a Hindu word for outcast, in other words, an untouchable. Iran and North Korea are untouchables on the international scene. Untouchables were tolerated in India as long as they kept their place. Yet the last thing these two countries want to do is remain low profile and out of sight. They strut their intentions to make big noise and big trouble.

Isn't that how outcasts naturally act? I know it's easy to think that we are dealing with madmen, but even the most insane dictatorship harbors a multitude of people who want to end the insanity. They just don't know how. There was a long-held superstition in India that if the untouchables ever took charge of the government, the world would come to an end. Therefore, they weren't granted even a whiff of power until the era of Gandhi, and when the wheels kept turning and the untouchables gained real power, you know what happened?

The world didn't come to an end. The extremism in Iran and North Korea has many roots, but what outcasts most resent, what drives them into paranoia, is being seen as nobodies. The only thing that makes Iran a somebody is its oil and its wild anti-Americanism. What makes North Korea a somebody is its status as a nuclear renegade and its wild anti-Americanism. From the outside, we see them as rebels without a cause. What's the point of establishing an entire nation on anti-Americanism? I don't think you can answer that question until you've been a nobody and an outcast yourself.

Rather than trumpeting how dangerous these pariahs are, why can't we begin to talk to them? They're totally fixated on the United States , and that means what they crave is our attention. They want to feel like somebodies, so let's begin an effort to engage in dialogue with them. I am not suggesting that this is a panacea, and I'm well aware of potential nuclear threats. But if we learned anything from the Cold War, it was that rattling the nuclear saber may engender fear, but in the end we're never going to use nuclear weapons. There is no real stand-off between us and these rogue nations because they aren't in imminent danger from us. It's a war of posturing and words that the United State should try to end by bringing North Korea and Iran back into the fold in ways that help reshape the conversation from extremist rhetoric to constructive action. By reducing the volume of public antagonism. we can start a process towards negotiation. Realistically, Iran and North Korea have problems of poverty, trade, and internal political discord that anti-Americanism is used to disguise. We should help them with their real problems, opening up regular trade talks. Right now trade is used as a bargaining chip in a pointless game of cat and mouse with two extremist regimes that manipulate the West with threats so that they can get a few carrots at the same time as we brandish our sticks.

It may take a generation to end this mini-Cold War, but so what? We need to show both countries that there are opportunities for dialogue and a path to their nation's future that doesn't consist of making us their Great Satan.

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