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.