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Dear Mr. President

You are very wise to have kept the U.S. delegation to the Durban II "human rights" conference in Geneva at home. Indeed, your statement about wishing that yourself and the country could "be involved in a useful conference that addressed the continuing issue of racism and discrimination around the globe" speaks for almost all Americans. Alas, the first hours of the five day conference proved the sagacity of your skepticism. Your decision, I recognize, took some bravery in that it strained alliances with the Black Congressional Caucus, rejected the implorings of a few decently inclined (but, truly, only a very few) non-governmental organizations and took a stand that might be interpreted as a reproach to some of our historic partners who chose to go.

Of course, it is they who are embarrassed, Mr. President. Many Western delegations have already run for cover with insincere expressions of surprise at the content and character of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's more than mad address. Many of the delegates actually ran from the assembly hall to escape the taint of his speech. But what was frankly the most distressing fact is that a lush majority of the representatives actually applauded the morally and historically demented words of their guest from Tehran.

I support your efforts to get both our country and its national antagonists to parley. Still, you might ponder the deeper meaning of the Geneva ugliness and what it bodes for an engagement foreign policy. Are we truly engaging dictators or the people upon whom they sit?

Allow me a vernacular quibble. One fact about your speaking is that it is ordinarily incisive and concise. So I was rather taken aback by the clumsiness of your explanation about why we were not going to Geneva. The language of the draft resolutions for Geneva "raised a whole set of objectionable provisions" and, as Cnaan Liphshiz reported in Ha'aretz, risked a reprise of the 2001 predecessor summit in Durban. This, you argued, "became a session through which folks expressed antagonism towards Israel in ways that were often times completely hypocritical and counterproductive."

These people whom you call "folks"--they were not people assembled at a "hootenanny"--were formal representatives of governments, some democratic, most not. They are not dumb. They were not being "counterproductive." They knew exactly what they were doing. And they were not being "hypocritical." They said exactly what they believed. And all that they said was actually false.

Durban II, like Durban I, is also addressed to the rift between civic freedoms and the insatiable yearning of Third World governments to contain the mind, oblige the body and limit the spirit. This is the rift that breaches the world.

Marty Peretz