Archive for category Iran

Where is the Mideast Revolt leading?

Tunisia and Egypt are looking like success stories early on.   Libya is a mess.   Syria looks like it could be the next to fall.  Pressure in Iran is growing, and the small statelets of Bahrain and Yemen face on going unrest.  Yemen’s President Abdullah Saleh has already said he’s stepping down, but unrest continues.    This will take awhile to play itself out, and before it’s over even Saudi Arabia is likely to experience regime change.

All of this is good news in the sense that the old order was obsolete and doomed to fall.   The Arab people have been victims of governments bolstered by oil hungry powers willing to enable corrupt and ruthless tyrants in exchange for their black gold.   That can’t last forever, and the mix of the information revolution and demography have pushed the region to the tipping point and I suspect there is no going back.   In 1982 Assad could kill tens of thousands to maintain authority, but now images and angry flow across the country and world in a way that undermines the capacity for dictators to engage in the most severe atrocities.

The bad news, of course, is that the region does not have a tradition of stable democracy, and if anything the authoritarian rule of recent years has reinforced the tradition of ruthless power politics inherited from the Ottomans.   And while Turkey had Attaturk, leadership in the Arab world is diffuse.    So where will this unrest lead?

1.  Those who fear too much, and those who hope too much are probably wrong.    One view is that this will be a peoples’ revolt leading to stable modern democracies throughout the region.   Another view is that al qaeda and Islamic extremists will use this to grab power and that this will be a victory for Islamic extremism.    Both views are naive.   The former is naive about the difficulty in having a culture shift from pre-modern practices to a functioning democracy, the latter naively fears a force that does not have the hearts and minds of the people of the region.   Some people are very comfortable fearing Islam and thus enjoy imagining it as an existential threat.

2.  Iran is the most likely to succeed.   Some might think it odd that the one theocracy is most likely to end up with a modern democracy, but Iran is already half way there, with a culture more modern and with less of a tradition of ruthless oppression than the states of the Arab world.   Iran (which is not Arab) was never part of the Ottoman Empire, and had a period of secularization under the Shah.   It was a modernization done too quickly, too ruthlessly and with too little respect for existing traditions, but it has left its mark.   The Shah failed where Attaturk succeeded because he never had Attaturk’s popularity and was seduced by the West to serve as a pawn in the Cold War and energy games.    This made him feel comfortable with personal power, and focused less on his country than his own rule.

But anyone watching the 2009 protests know that the Iranian people want change.  Anyone who has followed the history of post-revolutionary Iran know that modernization has been continuing despite theocratic rule, and that democratic elections do take place, and are hotly contested.  The Guardian Council has been keen to avoid pushing the public too hard, and has shown a capacity in the past to reform.   At some point an internal coup could push less conservative clerics to the top and usher in a transition that could be gradual and popular.   An Islamic democracy may not be like a western democracy, but it can be truly democratic.  Iran may be closer to that point than a lot of people think, and the changes now are more threatening to Iran’s leaders than people realize.

3.  This process will take decades with numerous ups and downs.  Gaddafi could leave Libya tomorrow, Syria’s government could fall, or Gaddafi could hang on for years and the son of Assad could channel his father’s ruthlessness in asserting Baath party control.  Likely there will be dramatic successes like Egypt’s and major disappointments.   Authoritarian regimes will cling to power as long as they think they can win– and most remain in denial of the forces conspiring against them.

This means that it will be a long time before we can truly judge the efficacy of NATO policy, the UN or the US.   It also suggests that oil price increases will continue, forcing us to move more quickly on alternative energy sources, as well as developing domestic oil and natural gas (especially from shale natural gas fields — a potentially very rich source).   It also means that those who espouse hope and those who convey fear will each find a lot of evidence for their beliefs.   You can see that in Egypt where both sides find ample evidence to prove that their hopes/fears are legitimate.

Standing back, though, one has to recognize that the old corrupt authoritarian tyrannies of the Arab world have to go.   No transition will be smooth.  Tunisia and Egypt are doing probably as well as one could hope for, but expect controversy and messy situations in each country for years.   Look at how Nigeria is 12 years into its 3rd Republic and elections are still marked with charges of rigging and some post voting unrest.   These transitions take time.   If the transitions going well take time with numerous ups and downs, places like Libya and Saudi Arabia face the potential that their transitions could take over a generation.   Once the Saudi government starts to lose control, oil crises will be likely.   It will be tempting to think there is something we can do to “fix” things:   Either prop up the old tyrants or intervene to create a new democracy.

The former would be a mistakes because the tyrants are being overthrown by their own people thanks to the force of the information revolution and ideas imported from the West.   It would be wrong to help the dictators stay in power, and ultimately self-defeating.   They will fall, and we don’t want to be seen as being on their side.  The latter simply is beyond our capacity.   We’ve seen that in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Libya is a fresh example.  Libya may be a more realistic way to help — give assistance to indigenous freedom fighters — but it risks sucking us in to a difficult long term quagmire which will likely lack closure.   Even after Gaddafi goes it will be a long time before the transition is complete.

In short, we are watching a major historical event, the start of a transformation of the Arab world away from authoritarian corruption towards modern democracy.   It won’t be the same as the West, but it’s almost certainly not likely to revert to Islamic extremism.   It’s a new era, and we need to have 21st century thinking.   Perhaps the most dangerous thing to do is look at all this through 20th century political perspectives.   A world in motion requires that our thinking be in motion too.

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Egypt is not Iran

Some pundits are comparing the situation in Egypt to the dilemma faced by President Carter when Iranians suddenly brought down the Shah in a revolt that virtually no one saw coming.   At that time there was pressure on President Carter to support the Shah, even though the protesters wanted freedom and democracy, not oppressive dictatorship.

Iran, however, was a pillar ally to the US in the region.  Bordering the Soviet Union, it was the regional power, receiving massive amounts of US military aid.  It protected Persian Gulf oil from the Soviets or anyone else who might want to control or disrupt the oil fields.  Iran is not Arab, and though Islam is the primary religion, the Shah was anti-religious, thinking only the weak minded needed such a crutch.   As such he brutally put down religious extremists, and was a good friend to Israel.   Losing Iran meant that suddenly Persian gulf oil was vulnerable and the regional powerhouse upon which US Mideast foreign policy depended became a potential adversary.

We know what happened next.  The Shah fell, and the Ayatollah Khomeini, the most prominent face of the opposition, became leader.    The Iranians stormed the US embassy and took the Americans there hostage.   Khomeini used anti-Americanism to grip power even tighter (one of the first things the Obama Administration did when Egypt fell into disarray is to greatly reinforce security at the US embassy in Egypt).   In 1980 Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, and that sealed the deal.   The religious fundamentalist government could say “you may disagree with us, but we have to come together to defeat the Arab invaders.”  In the eight years that war went in, the clerics coalesced power and shaped what we now know as the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In Egypt there is another foreign policy priority at stake: Mideast peace.   When Israel was formed in 1948 the Arab peoples were angry.  They didn’t mind Jews living there, but they didn’t want what they considered to be Arab land taken and turned into a Jewish state.  Four wars and 25 years later Israel had expanded its borders, and was occupying the West Bank (formerly controlled by Jordan), Gaza and the Sinai pennisula (formerly held by Egypt).  At that point Egyptian President Anwar Sadat decided that just or not, Israel existed and that fact could not be overturned with military power.  Rather than to condemn young people to continual (and pointless) war he made a deal: peace for land.  Egypt got the Sinai back, Israel promised to work on a deal for the West Bank and Gaza, and Egypt formally recognized Israel and became an ally.

Since Egypt was the dominant Arab military, this made another Arab-Israeli war impossible, ending that cycle of wars.  Israel couldn’t annex the occupied territories because that would give Arabs a majority in the Jewish state — they could vote it out of existence.  But they haven’t been able to figure out what to do, and the situation has festered for nearly 45 years.

The alliance with Egypt took pressure off Israel to make a deal over the West Bank and Gaza.  In the ensuing years frustration at being occupied and denied basic rights turned into anger, hate and violence.    Groups like Hamas formed against the corruption in the Palestinian authority, and neighboring Syria joined with Iran to back the Lebanese group Hezbollah, creating new dangers for the Israeli state.   Suicide bombers terrorized Israelis, as Palestinians lashed out against their occupation.  But as long as Egypt and Israel are allies, total war is impossible.   For 35 years Israel and Egypt have gotten the lion’s share of US foreign aid, most of it military.  This year’s share for Egypt is $1.5 billion.

As was the case with Iran, there is an Islamic fundamentalist opposition in Egypt.   In Egypt it is Islamic Brotherhood.   Started in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, it sought to promote the creation of a pure Islamic state.   Islam was not a strong political force in the early days.   Egypt’s first President, Abdul Nasser, came to power by joining other military officers in overthrowing King Faruk in 1952.  He espoused a kind of Arab Socialism, a non-Marxist non-aligned ideal of promoting Arab values.   He died in 1970, and replaced by Anwar Sadat.  Sadat was assassinated by an Islamic extremist in 1981 because of his deal with Israel.  Hosni Mubarak has been in power ever since.

Most foreign policy elite are used to the Egypt of Sadat and the early days of Mubarak.   Egypt’s government allows people to live relatively free lives and do business as long as they do not threaten political instability.   The Muslim Brotherhood was banned (though some members do run as independents and get into the parliament).    Most citizens were satisfied that elections were being held, and though dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party, some opposition was allowed.   But in the last election, in 2005, the NDP got 80% of the votes and Mubarak near 90%.   Effective opposition is not allowed.

The demographic trends I talked about two weeks ago conspire with the increasing ease of gaining information and organizing opposition to make this Egypt very different than the one foreign policy elites are accustomed to.  This is a new generation, a new century.  They are not satisfied with relative stability, and given rising food costs and increasing poverty (in part because of the population growth), there is a desire for change that goes far beyond groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.  Mubarak’s government — like those in much of the rest of the Arab world — has become obsolete.   Obsolete governments can hang on, sometimes for quite awhile, but sooner or later reality gets to them.   Trying to maintain the status quo by helping Mubarak will at best succeed for only a short time.

Yet the idea that Muslim Brotherhood will come to power like the clerics in Iran and set up a radical Islamic state is not a probable outcome.  Egyptians do not want to be like Iran, or like Saudi Arabia, and there is no reason to expect that the Muslim Brotherhood can do there what the Ayatollahs did in Iran.   Sunni Islam has a different sense of politics than does Shi’ite (Egyptians are Sunni, the Iranians are Shi’ite), and the Muslim Brotherhood does not provide the ‘face  of the opposition’ by Khomeini did.  Indeed, the protesters are mostly unaligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.  Moreover, Iran has oil, it had the resources to be more independent.   Any new government in Egypt has to deal with the problems of poverty and economic weakness.   The US and the EU will be in a position to make deals that the Egyptians cannot simply reject.

If one reads the alarmists, something which I labeled in my last post a “worst case scenario” gets put forth as if it’s likely.   War will break out, oil prices will skyrocket, a new Islamic state will emerge and further radicalize the Arab world!  Perhaps, but not likely.   Those who want to fear Islam see the worst case scenario as more likely than it is, just as those who yearn for change in Egypt see the best case scenario as more likely than it is.

Egypt is not Iran.   History has yet to be written.  The US can’t shape events, but how we and our allies react to them will help guide the trajectory of history.  So far the Obama administration has done the right things and adopted the right tone — President George H.W. Bush’s former Secretary of State James Baker made that point publicly.   The test, however, is yet to come.  As protesters and “pro-Mubarak thugs” fight it out in Tahir square, the diplomats have to get ready to be creative and innovative as they move into uncharted territory.  That’s probably something they’ll need to get used to.

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You Say You Want a Revolution?

As the industrialized West fights with declining birth rates, threatening the capacity to maintain pensions and adequate health care as life spans expand and families have less children, a different phenomenon is taking place in the Arab world and northern Africa.   In Egypt half the population is under 24.   In Saudi Arabia the median age is 25,  22 in Jordan, 20 in Iraq, 21 in Syria, and in non-Arab Iran it’s 26.  For comparison, the median population age is 37 in the US, 44 in Italy and Germany, and 40 in France and Great Britain.

And in the Arab world population has grown dramatically, and will continue to do so as those entering their twenties start having children.  The population explosion and massive shift to youth in that part of the world has profound political implications.

For the past forty years, the US has pursued good relations with authoritarian leaders in northern Africa.   After Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel, the US has heaped aid upon Egypt, even as Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, rules with an iron fist (and a faint illusion of democracy).  He is currently grooming his son to take his place.  Egypt is more like North Korea than the US.  The Saudi royal family maintains its deal with the extreme Wahhabi religious sect of Islam, to the point that before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Saudis were considered more repressive than Saddam’s Iraq.    Syria’s Baathist regime also maintains a tyrannical iron grip.

If you look at rankings of democracy and human rights, the Arab world is last, making the least progress in moving to democracy or respect for human rights.   Only Israel and Iran boast democratic governments, though Iran is really only a semi-democracy due to the power of the clerics in the Guardian council.    The US learned how resilient such authoritarian repression can be when after overthrowing Saddam, massive amounts of aid and support could not build a functioning democracy in Iraq.   Iraq is now less democratic than Iran, riddled with corruption as more often than not local thugs run things on the ground.

The reason is obvious.   The Ottoman Empire, which came to power in the wake of numerous attacks on the Islamic world from the outside, put together a ruthless military dictatorship.   To support it they pushed aside Islamic rationalism — an interpretation of Islam which, if followed, could have catapulted the Islamic world into the modern age, and brought back a rigid, fundamentalist doctrine.    To be sure, the Islamic rationalists did reach the West, studied by Thomas Aquinas, laying the ground work for Europe’s move to modernism.

This took what had been a progressive, tolerant civilization and put it in the deep freeze, with religious fundamentalists deifning Islam in a way that arguably veers wildly from what the Koran teaches.   In exchange for granting them that religious clout, the clerics gave unconditional support to the Ottoman Empire.   When the “young Turks” tried to reform it in the 19th Century, even as it was evident the empire was anachronistic and collapsing, they couldn’t.  It took World War I to finally bring the Ottomans down.

The corrupt and ruthless culture (by the end assassination was a common form of advancing ones’ career) they left behind is evident in the styles of Saddam, Assad, and even the Saudi royal family.   It is a very conservative, traditional and repressive approach to politics and life, rationalized with religion and custom.   It has continued despite globalization and outside pressure, in part because oil wealth gave the rulers the capacity to buy support.

However, modernism is a force that is hard to halt.  The youth of the Arab world (and in Iran) are not satisfied with their corrupt governments, and as their population swells, the old corrupt elite are not going to be able to maintain power.    After events last week in Tunisia surprisingly brought down a corrupt and brutal government, calls started to mount for Egypt to have its own revolution.

These weren’t calls from radical anarchists or anything, but included Mohammad El-Baradei, former head of the IAEA, and partial winner of a Nobel Peace Prize.   Whether or not this will lead to anything, it’s clear that change is going to force itself onto the Arab world, and the youth will not be kept down forever.  They are inundated with modern ideas, and the pace of change in such rapidly growing societies has already weakened tradition and custom.   It is only a matter of time until something gives, and it’s unlikely the corrupt leaders will have the capacity to hold back the storm.   In retrospect, the Arab elites of today may look a lot like the European aristocracy of the 18th Century – apparently on top of the world, but doomed by the trajectory of history.

What will this mean?   Although people like Osama Bin Laden have tried to feed off the discontent and the inherent anti-Americanism in that part of the world (our support for their corrupt leaders is pretty well known), he’s anti-modern.  He’s trying to fight against change.   Symbolically he’s fighting against the French revolution and the rise of reason and rational thought.  For him Medina in 622 AD is a model of how life should be today, western secularism, liberty and moral laxity are evils to be rejected.

Most young Arabs don’t think that way.  A few extremists will join that kind of cause, but what’s really impressive in the years since 9-11-01 is how little traction Islamic extremism has gotten in the Arab world.   The youth are unlikely to embrace puritanism and religious devolution as their future, especially as modern influences grow.

There is a danger, though, that if the US remains too associated with the hated regimes that have created this stagnant mess, anti-Americanism could be a unifying force, and that could prove harmful to US interests down the line.   If that isn’t tempered, anti-Israeli sentiment could be a unifying factor for these young people, as Arabs tend to see their defeats to Israel as humiliating and unjust.   Certainly the Israelis realize that the ticking demographic time bomb could be a real threat to their existence as a state if radicalism of any sort unites the Arab world against them.

We should find a way to get on the right side of history here, recognizing the inevitability that change and modernity will sweep the Arab world.    One clear way is to embrace respect for Islam; President Bush had the right tone when he proclaimed Islam “a religion of peace,” realizing that opposing and dissing a peoples’ faith is not a way to win friends.

President Bush also had one thing right in his choice to go to war in Iraq.   The old order cannot survive, and it would be best if democracy and markets could flourish.   He and his advisers under estimated the difficulty of pushing for change, ignoring both the power of culture and the inability of military power to effectively shape political and cultural outcomes.  But if war isn’t a way to bring positive change, then perhaps engagement and cooperation will be.   Moreover, this need not be governmental, it can be through citizens groups, non-governmental organizations and interfaith communities.

Because change is coming.   There will be revolutions of some sort.   The current order cannot last.   Perhaps if we can play a positive role we can repay an old debt.   Not only did Islamic rationalist philosophers point Thomas Aquinas to Aristotle, starting the move to modernism in the West, but Islamic ideas from Moorish Spain sparked the renaissance in Italy.   If not for Islam, the West might never have modernized.

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New World Order: Under Construction

We’ve become accustomed to the view that globalization is a friend of American ideals, economic liberalism, and westernization.   The cheery “world is flat” line from Thomas Friedman paints a picture of connections growing between countries and cultures, with self-interest and the material prosperity promised by markets trumping extremism and radicalism.  Even those with a more negative view of globalization tend to see the US and “world capitalism” winning — they argued that the price would be exploitation of the poor third world states, with perhaps some uprising against the West “down the line.”  Aside from the environmental concerns of global warming, globalization has generally been viewed  as a positive development for American ideals, even if the transition to a better world might be difficult.

Increasingly globalization looks connected to the dissolution of the Cold War and its bipolar system into a multi-polar anarchy, with both Communism and Capitalism succumbing to major crises.   The idea that economic liberalism “won” could in hindsight look like a fool’s fantasy, as if sailors ignorant that their own ship was slowly sinking cheered as their opponent’s ship sinks faster.

This does not mean that the US is not going to remain a power.   Former superpowers such as Russia, Britain, France and Germany still play major roles on the world stage.   The US has 300 million people, a high tech economy, a powerful military, and despite economic crisis, the capacity to grow and prosper.   This does mean that the rules are changing, and that the emerging world order is going to be far different than the one people are accustomed to, and certainly much different than the “unipolar” world neo-conservatives like Charles Krauthammer envisioned.

The evidence is all around.  It’s evident in the argument put forth by Walter Russel Mead about Brazil and Turkey. During the Cold War the range of actions of these states were limited by their need to maintain support from the US.   In a more unorganized world, the United States is not as important to these states, and they have responded with assertive policies often directly countering US interests (Brazil with Iran, Turkey opposing Israel).   The US can get mad, but there is little concretely that can be done to punish them.   In the past American unilateralism had sting; now there are other places to turn, and many other middle and even slightly larger powers that want to assert that they no longer fear America.

China has already made that clear with even whiffs of refusal to finance on going American debt.   Sure, China still needs our markets — but not as much as they used to.  Alternates are growing, and a weakening US economy means it’s easier to get oil for the Chinese economy.

The US miltary increasingly looks anachronistic, even as it is as powerful and technologically advanced as ever.  The reason is that warfare has changed.   Much of US power is based on the ability to use nuclear weapons — yet that weapon is one of deterrence, perfect for countering Soviet power, but not useful on the messy chess board of post-Cold War world affairs.     In all but the most fanciful and unlikely scenarios these weapons are simply unusable.

With terrorism and asymmetrical warfare becoming the dominant military strategies, more emphasis is based on economic policies and small regional conflicts.  The US can get involved in these, but Iraq and Afghanistan show that the cost is high, the ability to project power limited, the public’s tolerance of such actions low, and locals can undercut US objectives.   Currently that’s the problem in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Most think it’s highly unlikely the US will get involved in more such wars — we can’t afford it, and the public would oppose it — so fear of US military power has declined dramatically.    The US can use air strikes, but few believe that can achieve anything but the most limited objectives.

So, despite the disdain of diplomacy and internationalism by many on the right, the reality is that the rules of the new international order demand multi-lateralism.   There is very little the US can do on its own effectively.  The US has to compromise more and can lead less, something different than the past view as the United States as the “leader of the free world.”

This change has been rapid and dramatic, and has not been digested by many who are used to and comfortable with the old order and a dominant United States.   They blame Obama or Bush, think the US needs a more assertive foreign policy, but to support this they rely more on tough rhetoric than a reasoned argument about American capacities.    The result of trying to maintain the old policy patterns would be a United States trying to act beyond its capacity to succeed, thereby looking even weaker and more isolated.   By trying to push, demand, and force others to do things our way, we’ll be less effective and garner more ill will.

Yet, again, the US is still the dominant military power and has the largest economy.   The problems within the EU recently, China’s emerging domestic dilemmas, and other tensions show that while the US may not be the undisputed “leader of the West,” it’s also not a has-been.   The key to an effective foreign policy is to adjust to the need to “compromise more and lead less,” in order to still exercise some leadership, and still get others to compromise as well.   If a salesman goes to his boss and demand she give him a huge raise because of all the sales he’s made, she might decide it isn’t worth it and fire the guy.   If the salesman negotiates reasonably, he may get a satisfactory raise and stay with the firm.   We can’t be the bombastic power making demands, we have to be the confident power building alliances and coalitions.

That still doesn’t solve the problem of figuring out just how the new order is going to look when the dust settles.   A lot depends on oil supplies, how bad global warming really is, Mideast crises, and what happens over the next decade or so to the global economy.   But we are in systemic transition, always an unstable and often violent time.   It’s important to recognize that we have to let go of the assumptions and expectations of the past, and recognize that this is a new era.   The US can still be a major player, but not as a “dominant leader” or “unipolar power,” but through cooperation, alliance building, and multilateralism.

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The Foreign Policy President

President Barack Obama was ridiculed by some on the right early on for alleged foreign policy weakness.   Removing the missile defense system plans from Poland and the Czech Republic was criticized, and it was alleged (without evidence) that Sarkozy and Merkel don’t respect him.    Obama was also chided for not giving Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK the proper respect.

First of all, it’s heartening that those on the right are now concerned about being on the good side of France of Germany.   But more importantly, Obama actually looks to be setting the stage for having foreign policy has one of his strengths come 2012.   As with his domestic policy (and his Presidential campaign), he started slowly, but is building up steam.

1.   He’s tough.   Yes, he didn’t treat Gordon Brown like a brother, he humiliated Netanyahu, and his pressure caused Hamid Karzai to throw a hissy fit and threaten to join the Taliban.   The world is certainly getting the message: Obama is not some dovish ‘let’s all get alone and hold hands’ President.   If he doesn’t like what you’re doing, he’ll respond with both actions and words.

Take Israel.   The Vice President of the US arrives for a visit and on that day the Israeli government announces new settlements in East Jerusalem, officially land taken in the 1967 war and considered occupied territory.   No doubt the US would have opposed such a move anyway, but when it’s done while Biden is on a state visit, that’s needless provocation.   Perhaps Netanyahu was testing the Obama Administration?   The US sent a message in its response, the Israelis are complaining, but they now know that they need to stay on the good side of Obama or they will be punished.   They now are unsure if Obama will give them the unrestricted ‘blank check’ support they expect from the US.   That will force them to be reconsider their positions, and ultimately Netanyahu may have to switch coalitions and join the centrist Kadema party.

Moreover, word is that unlike President Clinton, who tried to hammer out a peace plan with the various sides, Obama is thinking of presenting his own plan.   In that he would give Israel real benefits, such as dealing with the threat of a nuclear Iran, taking into account Syria, Hezbollah and Lebanon.   In exchange, Israel will have to make some compromises that held up talks before.   If Israel knows that rejecting the US might mean less support, and if they see real benefits from this kind of plan, there could be a real breakthrough in the peace process.   If Obama can engineer that, he’ll not only show he deserves the Nobel Prize, but he will be seen as again succeeding where others failed.

2.   Russia.   The Obama Administration has handled Russia brilliantly.   They understand that Russia is not the threat it used to be, and that ‘saving face’ is important.   So he’s made symbolic concessions.   The missile defense system planned for Poland and the Czech Republic was not really scrapped, it was just altered to cover more of Europe.   But the way it was announced appeared a victory for the Russians, and they needed that.   The new nuclear strategy of the US also fits in those lines.   Russia has long had a ‘no first use’ doctrine for nuclear weapons.   Obama’s change of strategy not only recognizes that the old approach was based on Cold War realities, but had no real value in the current strategic environment.  By changing it (though everyone knows that in a crisis Presidents can easily put options back on the table) he makes it easier for other states to work more closely with the US and approve sanctions on Iran.   The result: a new START treaty, and real movement with China and Russia on sanctions focused on Iran.

3.   Iran.   Obama gave them a chance to change behavior, something he promised to do.   They did not, and the conservatives there, fearing loss of power, have clamped down harder.   Obama has decided to shift course and increase the pressure — with the promise that if they avoid getting nuclear weapons, they can still join the globalized world economy.   This pressure, should China and Russia finally join, would be immense.   Iran has real weaknesses, especially on the economic front.

4.  China.   Obama’s policy towards China has been similarly realist as the one towards Russia.   He recognizes the importance of symbolism, and internal struggles within China.   Like President Bush, he also recognizes the symbiotic relationship between the two, and how the future will likely see China trying to diversify its markets so it is not so reliant on the US.   For the first time since President Nixon, Obama seems able to navigate the Chinese political landscape and reshape a relationship that has been on the rocks for ten years (remember the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Kosovo and angry Chinese response?), despite the fact the two know they need each other.  Treasury Secretary Geithner’s trip to China also suggests growing economic cooperation, something in the interests of both countries.

5.  Afghanistan.   Obama’s decision making on Afghanistan is text book of what a President should do.   He listened to advisors, considered the plans, avoided pressure to make a hasty decision (such as when former Vice President Dick Cheney accused him of ‘dithering’), and then made a call.   His decision was based largely on input from the military and especially Gen. David Petraeus, with whom he seems to have developed a very close working relationship.   Yet he had no good options, and has signaled the Afghan government that if they don’t change, they’ll get a lot less support from us.   Karzai is angry about that, it’s clear that the US is no longer going to be boxed in by some sense that we have no choice but to stay and support a corrupt government.   Our focus is on terrorists, we do want to defeat or coopt the Taliban, but it’s on our terms.   I suspect that by 2012 successful withdrawals from both Iraq and Afghanistan will be underway.

A lot can still go wrong.   A lucky terrorist strike opens the door on numerous possibilities.  Hezbollah could launch attacks on Israel, there could be a lot of crises that can’t be anticipated this early.   But don’t be surprised if in future years Obama’s foreign policy successes are what he’s remembered for.  It’s early, but there are signs of positive change — and given the last decade’s debacles, we need that!

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Near the End in Iran?

Authoritarian regimes govern relatively effectively if they can convince the public that there is more to lose in opposing them than to gain.   This usually involves a carrot and stick approach.   Support the regime and you get perks, recognition, maybe your children can get into a good university, or perhaps your village will get a new school.   Oppose the regime and you’ll be imprisoned, perhaps tortured, maybe killed.

Concurrently, authoritarian regimes need effective propaganda.  They need to convince the public that the government is acting in the interests of the people, that the enemies of the state are powerful, and that the regime has legitimacy.  Following Max Weber legitimacy can be charismatic (support for a leader), traditional (this is the way things have always been done), and rational/legal (the system functions according to clear legal guidelines in a rational manner.)

In Iran, the situation is increasingly one where the authoritarian government has to rely on “sticks” (including political executions yesterday) to hold on to power, as the public no longer believes the government can give them what they want.   As the people rise up, this kind of brazen use of power to kill opponents can backfire.  At some point citizens say “we can’t live like this, I would prefer to die making a better society for the future.”    In such cases, authoritarian governments usually fall.

Consider for a moment authoritarian regimes with staying power: the USSR during Stalin’s era, China during Mao’s reign, and Zimbabwe under Mugabe.   In the first two propaganda provided a kind of legitimacy through charismatic leadership (Stalin and Mao were revered), plus ideology to rationalize the need for strong action.    When Stalin died, the Soviets developed a rational-legal form of legitimacy based on a compromise: you don’t rock the boat, and we assure total security, including health care, shelter, employment, and retirement.   For most people, those benefits were worth not rising up in opposition to the regime (risking punishment to self and family), and thus the system persisted.   After Mao’s death China took a radical turn towards markets and reform, improving the lives of millions, thus buying legitimacy for their government.   In Zimbabwe the lack of effective government meant that the state was run more like an organized criminal enterprise than a true state.   Mugabe could buy favors and use the country’s poverty in his favor.

Iran is different on all fronts.   To be sure, when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, he and the new regime had charismatic legitimacy.   He was a religious leader, a symbol of opposition against the hated Shah, and promised Iran a new level of independence and respect on the world stage.  No longer would Iran be pushed around by the British, Americans or even Soviets.   No longer would the Muslim world seem secondary to the Christian West, or the Shi’ite world irrelevant compared to the Sunni populations across Arabia and beyond.   Manufactured crises, like the hostage drama at the US Embassy, helped the regime gain popularity.   When Saddam attacked in 1980, Iranians came together to defeat their secular Arab foe.

At the same time, Iran boasted a real, if incomplete democracy.   The Majles (parliament) had some real authority.   The President was often fighting against the will of the hardliners, and until 2004 the moderates won pretty much every major election.   This is important in that it created both the semblance and even the reality of progress.   Even though the clerics making up the Guardian Council could stymie efforts at change, people felt that life was getting better, that the regime was opening up, that over time power would shift towards more moderate clerics, and perhaps ultimately become tolerant of secular perspectives.

There was cynicism, but as long as there seemed to be real political debate, and as long as the hardliners were backing down on issues such as dress code, public conduct, and other originally very conservative rules, the people felt that their voice was having an impact.   The Iraq war, however, changed the game completely.   First the Iranian hardliners used anti-Americanism and nationalism to for the first time win elections.  They parlayed that into increasing power and a turning back of some of the earlier liberalization, and since then have proven unwilling to go back to the kind of slow change that seemed to define the eighties and nineties.

In some ways, I think the leadership is getting misled by Geopolitics.   Just as the USSR’s role as a superpower caused it to simply assume the domestic situation was stable, the Iranians became smitten with the idea that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are giving them a chance to claim regional power status.  They have bolstered their efforts to get nuclear weapons, made deals with China and Russia, have a very strong presence in the Iraqi governing parties, and continue to support a powerful Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.   There is a real shift of regional power away from the US and Israel towards Iran.   There’s nothing like foreign policy to take a leader’s eye off the domestic ball, and to some extent I believe that’s happened in Iran.

To those who say the hardliners will “never give up power,” well, it’s not that easy.   That’s what was said about the Shah, Pinochet, and numerous other fallen authoritarians.   At some point, subtly and quietly behind the scenes, loyalties switch as the bureaucracies, police forces, and even the military are no longer loyal to the state.  When that happens the edifice collapses, and the clerics will find they have no more power to choose not to give up.    From reports out of Iran, unclear and uncertain, there seems to be a sense that could be happening.  The regime may be imploding.   They may have already crossed the point of no return.   They lack any kind of legitimacy, their propaganda has failed, the people no longer exhibit so much fear of the stick, and any carrots being offered are brushed away.    This is what happened to the Shah in 1979; it could be happening to the Islamic Republic in 2010.

To those who say that we should nudge the regime aside through military strikes, that would be a huge mistake.   Authoritarian regimes love playing the nationalism card, and anger at American or Israeli bombing raids that kill civilians could give the hardliners the staying power to survive this crisis.    The fate of Iran is in the hands of the Iranians.  Stay tuned, this could end up being the most important story of the year.

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The Iran Conundrum

If Iran were not a partial democracy, and if it were ruled by a ruthless dictator who governed with an iron fist, it would still be difficult to figure out how to handle Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.   The fact that it’s also a society in transition, with a growing and often restless middle class, suggests that the West has to be very careful how to respond to the fear of Iranian nuclear proliferation.

The conundrum is clear: if Iran gets nuclear weapons it will become a regional power capable of upsetting already unstable balances of power in the region, and make it more difficult for Israel to counter groups like Hezbollah.  If, however, military action is undertaken against Iran, it would not only be dangerous, but could threaten to undermine the economic and political stability in the West.  War with Iran is unthinkable; not only is Iran much stronger than either Iraq or Afghanistan were, with much more difficult terrain, but if the past is any guide an attack will push the growing, restless opposition back in step with the leadership.

The best hope is with those middle class dissenters, student and women protesters, and others tired of a regime whose methods have hurt the economy and prevented Iran from having the status in world affairs which it could have.  The fact is that Iran is the regional power, far superior in capacity, resources and population than Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and pretty much everyone from Africa to China except Pakistan.  Can a mix of economic and political pressure strike that right balance of damaging the regime but not igniting an anti-American backlash?   Could it even serve to push the regime to give up its alleged arms program (or, if it really doesn’t have one, open up enough to prove it.)?

So far, Obama is showing a level of competence that the past administration did not, at least not until well into President Bush’s second term.   One is to get the international community together on the issue.   Job one is to keep France, Germany and the UK with the US to speak with one voice.  Job two is to get Russia on board.  Russia has aided Iran many times, and has used their ability to thwart US efforts on Iran to pressure the US to finally abandon an unneeded but expensive missile shield plan for Poland and the Czech Republic.   So job one seems to be going well, create an international consensus that won’t crack at the first sign of pressure.  In this Obama is more reminiscent of the first President Bush than his son.

Job two is to craft a policy designed to do the job.   So far, it appears a mix of threatened sanctions — targeted to hurt Iran — combined with a willingness for discussion.   It’s a classic carrot and stick approach, with Iran being given a chance to shift policy while saving face.  This is when foreign policy becomes more art than method, and when it becomes exceedingly important to engage in a personal manner with the other side.

There is no guarantee that even if Obama does everything right, it will work.   But the Iranian Guardian Council — the people who do run the country — are known for Machiavellian ruthlessness, and a sense of rational self-interest.   If it becomes against their interests to continue this policy, they will change.   They will test Obama and the world community to be sure of their resolve.   They will make bombastic statements threatening potential violence in Palestine or threats to the region, hoping to get Obama nervous and willing to back down.  It seemed to work with Bush, whose talk on Iran was always about twenty times worse than his almost non-existent bite.

What Obama has to do is maintain a stable and dogged persistence on Iran, punishing them with economic sanctions that can be maintained by most of the international community in a manner that hurts the Iranian economy and weakens the hold of the hardliners on the country.   He cannot start talking trash. President Bush’s problem was that he talked a lot of trash, but couldn’t follow through.  Thus he pushed allies away, helped the hardliners in Iran rally the people behind them, and was unable to accomplish his goals.

To be sure, military options are all but off the table.   They have to maintain a threat to possibly bomb the site in question, but I think if that’s the main focus, Iran will call that bluff successfully.   The dangers of such a policy, already gamed out, are immense, with the chances of success are minimal.  It could be met with an upsurge of violence in Iraq from Shi’ite militias, Hezbollah pressure against Israel, higher oil prices, and a ‘rally around the flag’ effect in Iran, as even those opposed to Ahmadinejad rally against an American threat.  All that, and it may not succeed in stopping Iran’s efforts.   The focus has to be economic, it must be effective, and Obama has to keep a coalition together on this.  If he can somehow get China on board, that will be a masterstroke.

If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, it risks creating an incentive for Saudi Arabia to get nukes, increases the danger of an Israeli attack on Iraq (which would be even worse than an American bombing), and could further embolden and protect the most vicious Shi’ite terror organizations like Hezbollah.  To be sure, Iran’s Guardian Council isn’t run by lunatics.  They’re not about to launch offensive wars against Israel, who has hundreds of nukes.  Their goal is to expand their position as a regional power, become the most important voice in OPEC, and slowly spread their influence.   Perhaps the most disastrous aspect of the Iraq war was the opening it gave Iran to expand its influence in Iraq.

So far, Obama is playing this well, though the game is in the early stages.   This is one of the trickiest crises any President might face, and one that defies any military solution or magic diplomatic bullet.  It requires resolve, the ability to keep a coalition together, and a clear and effective set of economic sanctions.   If it works, it could set the way for greater changes in Iran in coming years, perhaps increasing the depth and scope of Iran’s currently only partial democracy.   If it fails, then the number of crises the President will face in the region will grow in both quantity and level of danger.

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In a Alternate Universe…

Imagine an alternate universe where history did not quite unfold the same way as it did for us.   In this alternate reality, the Abassid Caliphate continued, there was no Ottoman Empire and its rule of military dictatorship, and Islam maintained and expanded on its tolerant, open approach to people and knowledge, modernizing before Europe.  In time, internal conflict weakened the Caliphate, and Persia (present day Iran) emerged as the major world power, with the former Abassid empire maintaining wealth, but losing status.  Persian influence spread throughout Southeast Asia, and was the basis of numerous military alliances.  After a Cold War with China, Persia became  the unipolar power, dominant, with a view of spreading Islamic peace and morality (defined now in a modern sense) to the world.

The Europeans had devolved into a kind of dark ages.   Despite the renaissance, internal strife prevented further modernization.  After the Hapsburgs put down the protestant political revolt in 1650, they struck a deal with the Roman Catholic church to maintain centralized rule based on a conservative, traditional form of Catholicism.   The defeated protestant movement went underground, and became radicalized.  Over time Europe’s internal splits and lack of modernization left it vulnerable to Abassid influence, though the Church remained strong enough to prevent domination.  European politics, in response to the external threats, veered to military dictatorship, with Christianity used as the rationale for rule.  Over time, however, the United States emerged as a new power, meshing radical protestantism with modern technology, and promoting “western, Christian” values.  Persia watched the rise of this western power with unease, fearing it could become a threat to the advanced, civilized, Islamic world.

Angered at the hoarding of oil by the industrialized Islamic states, European and American activists accused them of trying to keep the West down.  Moderates in the West, emerging finally from centuries of stagnation, hoped to mesh the values of the Islamic secular enlightenment with Christianity to create a peaceful form of modernization that would not be a threat to the Islamic world.  But as Islamic values penetrated more deeply into the West, there was a backlash, and radical Christian groups arose, making demands for cheaper oil and less Muslim influence.  Complicating all this was a small Sufi colony in southern Greece.  Established by a Sufi mystical sect fleeing persecution a hundred years earlier, it developed into a true modern economy in an otherwise backwards Europe.  It received military help and cheap oil from the Abassid regime and Persia, but it also emerged as symbolic of the growing hatred of Europeans and Americans for the Islamic world.  Greece was, after all, the land of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates.

“Reclaim Greece,” was the mantra, and soon radical Christian and western groups engaged in terrorist acts aimed at driving the Sufis out of Greek territory.  Persia supported the Sufis, arguing that they had been there for a long time, and had a right to govern that section of Greece.   Before they came Athens and the region southward had become impoverished and backwards; the Sufi exiles brought progress and civilization.   Because of radical Christian opposition to the very existence of Sufi Greece, some in the Islamic world rejected the idea that Christianity was a religion of peace, saying that the fondness of radical groups for passages in the Old Testament which commanded the Israelites to kill women and children as they devastated a city — verses used by radicals to argue for the violent and uncompromising expansion of Christianity — made the pacifistic verses of the New Testament irrelevant.    The prophet had taught a cosmopolitan vision and toleration of other religions, they argued, meaning Jews and Christians in the Islamic world — ones who had modernized — were doing very well, while Christianity was intolerant of both other faiths.  Christianity was a religion of conquest, they argued, look at the history of Europe.

The problems reached a climax when a group called “Christian Democracy Now,” headed by a radical named William Jefferson Bush, launched a major terror attack which took down sky scrapers in Tehran using commercial jets.  The Islamic world was shocked at the brutality, especially as they saw dancing in the street from members of the Christian minority population in Greece, who were being kept on reservations.  They realized the rise of the West was a danger.  Then the Americans, while holding on to Christian values and ruled by a radical Protestant regime, started development of a nuclear weapon.  The American people were proud that they were standing up finally to Persia; Persia’s nuclear dominance had made it invincible and able to get its way on everything.  Moreover, Persian leaders were saying the way to stop terrorism and maintain long term peace was to bring Islam to the West, or, at the very least, mesh Islamic governance with Christian values.  This was seen by Americans as raw imperialism and a threat to their identity.

As America got closer to having a bomb, and as radical groups operating from Macedonia and Albania (supported by the American government) threatened Sufi Greece, Persia had two choices; a) launch a pre-emptive strike against America and its nascent threat in order to reshape the western world to fit Islamic values, or b) accept that America would get nuclear weapons, and that the West had to chart its own course of development.

After much debate they realized that “a” would fail — no military attack could force Christians to give up their faith, and western ideas and western culture would be embraced even more tightly by Americans and Europeans in response to raw Islamic aggression, further radicalizing the Christian terror groups, and bringing more danger to Sufi Greece.  So they chose “b,” and instead decreased the level of threat, stopped talking about expanding Islamic values into the West, and worked to support American and European moderates who argued that the philosophies of forgotten thinkers such as Montesquieu and Jefferson provided a blueprint for a modernization of Christianity that was neither radical nor violent.  They gave statehood to the Christian minority in Sufi Greece (including control of parts of historic Athens), which at first led to a period of real danger from extremists who wanted the Sufis out completely.   Over time that danger diminished as relations improved.  America did get the bomb, but contrary to the worst Persian fears, did not try to attack Sufi strongholds in Greece, or threaten the Abassid lands or Persia.

Indeed, Persia had the capacity to annihilate America many times over with its vast arsenal; the Persians realized the idea that Americans would commit suicide just to kill Muslims was far overblown.   They accepted that Christians also value life.    The Persians realized that the fears of a “World War” or the “end of Islam” from this rising western threat were misplaced.  After a couple of tense decades, a modern America started to appear, gradually shedding its radical anti-Islamic/anti-Perisan approach recapturing lost traditions from the Christian and western “enlightenment” past.  Soon a modern Western way of thinking emerged, something that many in the Islamic world had thought impossible.

When America and Persia signed a treaty of friendship 25 years after America got the bomb, they noted how close they had gotten to a conflict which would have been disastrous for both worlds.   And, ultimately the Sufis and Christians in Greece developed good relations and close economic ties, something which at one point seemed impossible.  They realized that the Koran and Bible shared a basic wisdom: making war will only lead to more war and anger.  By acting according to the best of their values, they could together build a peaceful future.

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Martin Luther King and Iran

(Note: this week is “Summer Experience” at UMF, where incoming first year students have an intense week of discussion oriented work, with each class reading the same material — an ecclectic interdisciplinary set of works designed to stimulate thought and discussion.  This week I will blog about one of the writings each day.   Last year for day two I wrote about Paolo Friere’s piece on the Banking Concept of Education.)

As we watch the protests grow in Iran, as average people try to stand up to a government that has not been open or honest with their citizenry, an appropriate piece to discuss is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  King was jailed for civil disobedience, and was responding to others in the clergy who criticized King for being too confrontational, using demonstrations, sit ins, and marches to try to push forward their demand for equality.   They believed that dialogue and slow progress would be a better path to change, and that King’s approach was overly contentious.

King’s patient response nonetheless had a strong accusation: it is easy for people not feeling the pressure of injustice to call for moderation and avoidance of confrontation.  If the injustice has been going on for a long time, those who don’t suffer see no problem with a gradual correction of that injustice.  Those experiencing it, however, recognize that it must end as soon as possible.

King noted that direct action came only after collecting the facts, negotiating, and self-purification.   As he put it: “You are exactly right in your call for negotiation.  Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action.  Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.  It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

This is what is happening in Iran, as the world watches to see whether or not the religious leaders in Iran will respond to the protests with negotiation and change, or will clamp down with ferocity.   King notes that freedom is not given up by an oppressor but must be demanded by the oppressed.   The Iranian people have been patient.  They have a partial democracy, a modicum of political and social freedom, and they certainly do not live in a totalitarian state.   The level of democracy and freedom in Iranian life is high enough that most citizens have been willing to tolerate the regime’s desire to maintain control.    Now, however, many have had enough and are trying to force the Guardian Council and Supreme Leader to negotiate away from their attempt to maintain conservative control at all costs.

Are they justified?   King’s answer back in 1963 was to ask whether or not the laws being enforced are just.   As King put it: “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.  An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.  To put it in the terms of Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.  Any law that uplifts human personality is just.   Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

In Iran, the leaders claim that the protests are unjust.  While they admit some vote fraud, they do not believe that the amount of fraud could overcome the difference between the candidates.   In that they may be right — we have no way to know for sure if Mousavi is even close to Ahmadinejad in the final tally, many pollsters doubt it.  But that’s not the point.   The protests are not just about the election or about Ahmadinejad.   Rather, it is about trying to change an unjust system.

Another argument Iran’s leaders make is that they do provide just rule; they are clerics making sure that God’s laws are being properly followed in the Islamic Republic.   Yet when one looks more closely at Iranian politics, it appears less about religious purity than rivalries between various clerics, oil revenue, and corruption.    Moreover, the Koran does not condone a leadership lying to its people, promising one thing and then working behind the scenes to make sure it doesn’t happen.  A true Islamic Republic would govern in an open, just manner.  Claims of religious justice are contradicted by reality — the leadership in Iran is not true to basic values of the Koran.

Some might object to using King as an example for Iran because he was a Christian, and his values are therefore western and foreign to Iran and Islam.  Yet King’s inspiration was Gandhi, a Hindu, who himself was inspired by Thoreau.  King and Gandhi would argue that timeless universal laws are valid across faiths, and not the sole propriety of one particular religion.  Iran’s leaders would no doubt disagree, yet within the Koran itself the values King holds dear — freedom, accountability, justice and equality — are fundamental.   Muhammad’s core message was to end oppression, especially of women and the poor, and Iran’s regime often seems far distant from those basic Koranic values.

What can we in the US do?   As citizens, we can show as much solidarity as possible with the Iranian people who are trying to have control over their own destinies.   I still think Obama’s approach makes sense.   There is nothing we can do to force change onto Iran, and an effort to meddle might make it less likely that the regime will negotiate fairly with the protesters.  But the clerics in the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader would be wise to take seriously another statement by Martin Luther King in his letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.   The urge for freedom will eventually come.”

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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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