Obama right on Iran

Barack Obama is passing his first real foreign policy challenge with high marks, resisting the pressure to grandstand on the Iranian protests, even while the Republicans take pot shots at his alleged “weakness.”   A weaker President would be unable to resist the cheap temptation to talk hyper tough on Iran, scoring political points at home, but actually hurting the protest movement in Iran and giving nationalist cover to the hardline regime.   A strong President puts effective policy ahead of politics.

In 2004 and 2005 Iranian moderates complained about President Bush’s tough anti-Iranian talk.   It had the effect of arousing anti-Americanism, given our past history of interfering in Iranian politics, and gave the hardliners cover to crack down.  Up until the US invasion of Iraq, the hardliners had not won a single Iranian election.  Their democracy isn’t perfect, but it’s evolving.

Now they face a pivotal moment.  It’s not clear that the protesters have the majority on their side.  Some pollsters believe that Ahmadinejad had a large lead going into the election.  The protests, like those in China in 1989, are primarily in urban areas and from the educated.   It’s massive, but given the support Ahmadinejad has from the conservative countryside (which has benefited from government largesse), it could well be that the election results are close to accurate.

Beyond that, what could Obama do to effectively help bring change to Iran?   Lambasting with tough rhetoric is a sign of impotence.  Bush talked loudly, but it turned out that when it came to Iran, he had a small stick.    Obama could lash out at the Iranian Guardian Council, but that in and of itself packs no punch.  Indeed, it plays into the hands of the hardliners.

Direct support in terms of aid and assistance to protest movements in Iran would not only be ineffective (they can gather resources themselves), but awaken the specter of past US efforts to shape Iranian society.  It would quickly turn the “silent majority” against the reformers, giving cover to the hardliners.

Back in 1989 as change swept Eastern Europe, President Bush the elder wisely realized that it would be foolish to, as he put it, “dance on the wall and stick a finger in their eye…who knows how they would have had to respond.”  Bush the Elder understood that dramatic change like that at the end of the Cold War has to be done by the people there, and can’t be forced on states by the US.   The reason is clear: the US does not have the capacity to shape political results, and efforts to intervene would be doomed to fail.

Bush’s approach was literally to talk softly and carry a big stick.   The Soviets knew we had the capacity to undercut their regime and economy, and if we tried to do so in 1989 a more successful coup against Gorbachev would have been possible.  Bush’s approach helped assure that the Cold War would end peacefully.   After Tiananmen Square in China, Bush’s approach was similar, though unlike in Eastern Europe, the protesters did not win out and the government crackdown worked.  Few, however, would argue that the US should have been harsher in its response.   There is little we could have done to alter the outcome, and change in China has continued at a slow, but real pace since then.

Bush the Younger talked tough and got political points for that.  We’ll get Bin Laden dead or alive.  Regime change needs to come to North Korea and Iran as well as Iraq.   The axis of evil.  The war on terror.   All heady tough sounding stuff that the country ate up after 9-11.   Yet the debacle in Iraq showed that the US could not follow through on that talk — our talk came back to hurt us on numerous levels, and make painfully obvious how impotent we are to truly change the region.

Will Iran change?   Yes, but it may be slow, and the process may be only beginning.   Iran might be best served by continued evolutionary change, not a revolution.   That’s a question none of us can answer with certainty.   But unless someone can come up with some kind of concrete action the US can take which would be effective, truly help the people of Iran, and not severely risk our prestige and national interest, any criticism of Obama as being too “soft” is cheap political garbage.  Talk is cheap.  Being rhetorically tough is cheap and easy.   The pundits, dealing as they do with words and rhetoric, may think rhetoric is the most powerful force in politics.  It’s not.

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  1. #1 by m0k3d on June 21, 2009 - 4:52 pm

    I am running a poll to see how Obama might handle a similar protest here in America?

    Vote here,
    http://todayperhaps.com/2009/06/21/what-would-obama-do-if-the-protest-was-here/

  2. #2 by Lee on June 22, 2009 - 10:27 am

    I concur with your feelings here. I have felt that for too many years now, we have arrogantly acted as though we could impose our political views on people who don’t share our history, perhaps our values, and certainly in many cases our standards of living.

    If the protests are to bring about change it must happen without it appearing sanctioned by the U.S. or any change is doomed IMHO.

  3. #3 by classicliberal2 on June 22, 2009 - 3:47 pm

    Obama is right on this one, and the righties jumping down his throat in the U.S. are full of beans, as usual.

    It is an exciting moment for Iran. All the elements of a full-fledged revolution are in place, and it wouldn’t take anything like a majority to carry one off. What we’re seeing now is the explosive continuation of a process well on its way before Bush went into Iraq and sabotaged it; the disillusionment of Iran with rule by the mullahs. Years of it had forced the Supreme Leader to loosen up on various restrictions, including what candidates could run for office. Reformers of various stripes had actually carried several elections before the Iraq mess, and even the hardliners were parroting their slogans by then. Ahmadinejad was a reaction against Bush’s actions, nothing more. The same dissatisfaction with and bitterness at the old guard regime has continued to smolder. The government’s insane overreaction–rigging the election, cutting off any means of redressing the matter, then resorting to violent repression–has stepped on what we’re told Iranians regard as their fundamental rights. If the fundamental trust they keep with their government is broken, it’s only a matter of time before that government is sent packing. It may happen next week, next month, or next year, but if that line has been sufficiently crossed, it will happen.

    The character of what will follow is another matter. That usually depends on who wins.

    In any event, Obama is correct in not inserting himself into it. The hardliners have portrayed the unrest as a product of U.S. meddling from day one. Anything more Obama might say would only seem to confirm that, and, if the reformers can be effectively portrayed as pawns of the Great Satan, all the air will instantly go out of their tire.

  4. #4 by henitsirk on June 22, 2009 - 8:36 pm

    At this point, I think any anti-Iran bombast would just be like poking a stick into an anthill. Certainly nothing positive to be gained there.

    And if we’re going to say that as a nation we would like to promote democracy worldwide, then we need to allow the citizens of other countries to enact their own democracies and not interfere. If the election in Iran is disputed, they need to figure out whether to hold another election or affirm the first one. If there is a majority of rural, conservative voters, then that is the kind of leader they should have, whether we like it or not.

    Finding a way to harmonize religious belief and democracy is difficult. It’s not our job to foist either one on anyone.

  5. #5 by pseudointellectualnitwit on June 25, 2009 - 3:54 am

    Absolutely agree. The rightie wingnuts just don’t get it… once again! The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was nothing more than our own interventionist policies like the Mossadegh plot coming home to roost. In fact, President Obama should offer a heartfelt apology for our past transgressions against the Iranian people. There’s no question, any blustering bravado or even a mild rebuking of the Islamic Republic as it reasserts its oppressive grip would allow us to be their foil. It’s really irrelevant that the Iranian leadership has already fingered America for the demonstrations, if President Obama condemned the brutal repression it would only fan the flames somehow.

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