Why Obama Can't Take a Light Touch on Iran

by Benjamin Domenech on 3:06 pm June 17, 2009

Protesters in Tehran

Since taking office, I and several of those who hold views on the American center-right have been pleasantly surprised by aspects of President Barack Obama’s policies toward national security and foreign policy. While he has proven surprisingly green in some areas — the botched diplomacy, the bowing, the poor choices in gifts — as a general rule, President Obama has followed a path on security and international relations that is much better, and has much more in common with his predecessor, than many expected. While he and Dick Cheney disagree on much, his administration has quietly continued defense in the courts of several key policies adopted by George W. Bush, indicating that he has perhaps reconsidered some of his rasher statements during the Democratic primaries last year. Reading the daily intelligence briefings has a way of changing one’s perception of the world, and it’s possible that has happened to President Obama, much to the chagrin of Glenn Greenwald.

Yet this raises the question: does this positive, pro-security result emerge out of a coherent philosophy of the American government’s proper role, or is it merely an attempt by a president to avoid altering course as much as is possible in areas where he lacks a strong opinion? Is President Obama guided by principle, or by inertia?

As the scene in the streets of Iran indicates a continued spiral toward violent protest of the clearly questionable election results, it appears that President Obama could indeed be motivated by the latter view. His responses in yesterday’s interview with CNBC seem as if they could have come from the mouth of the enduringly odd Daniel Larison. Here is perhaps the most interesting portion:

HARWOOD: Couple things, quickly, before we run out of time. You took your time reacting to the protests in Iran after the election. What are you watching for in the handling of those protests and in the investigation of the results to–and how will that influence the dialogue that you seek to have with Iran?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think first of all, it’s important to understand that although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, that the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised. Either way, we were going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States, that has caused some problems in the neighborhood and is pursuing nuclear weapons. And so we’ve got long-term interests in having them not weaponize nuclear power and stop funding organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. And that would be true whoever came out on top in this election. The second thing that I think’s important to recognize is that the easiest way for reactionary forces inside Iran to crush reformers is to say it’s the US that is encouraging those reformers. So what I’ve said is, `Look, it’s up to the Iranian people to make a decision. We are not meddling.’ And, you know, ultimately the question that the leadership in Iran has to answer is their own credibility in the eyes of the Iranian people. And when you’ve got 100,000 people who are out on the streets peacefully protesting, and they’re having to be scattered through violence and gunshots, what that tells me is the Iranian people are not convinced of the legitimacy of the election. And my hope is that the regime responds not with violence, but with a recognition that the universal principles of peaceful expression and democracy are ones that should be affirmed. Am I optimistic that that will happen? You know, I take a wait-and-see approach. Either way, it’s important for the United States to engage in the tough diplomacy around those permanent security concerns that we have–nuclear weapons, funding of terrorism. That’s not going to go away, and I think it’s important for us to make sure that we’ve reached out.

This is far more quiet and vague than the statements emerging from some of Obama’s fellow Democrats, and a world away from Sen. Joe Lieberman’s statement over the weekend. Jennifer Rubin and Jake Tapper have followed the string on this, with Rubin offering the criticism: “Get the sense he doesn’t give a fig about which way it turns out? Get the sense all he cares about is preserving the hope of dealing with the regime (a fascistic regime prepared to kill its own people to maintain a fraudulent election)?”

I am not sure whether or not President Obama cares about the plight of the people in the streets of Tehran, but it does seem clear he is not at all interested in getting involved. When one gets involved in things, you have to answer for them, and you’re held accountable on how they turn out, for good or ill. In similar situations in the past where post-election protest was rendered illegal by a regime the United States considered despotic, Ronald Reagan decided to speak out unequivocally in favor of Solidarity, and Bush emphatically endorsed Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. And the world saw what followed.

Now, we have a president who is so concerned about pleasing both sides of a disagreement, he has no apparent qualms when it comes to saying “wait-and-see” and “tough diplomacy” within a dozen words of each other. His “light touch” approach to domestic policy has been anything but — so his reluctance to invest something as simple as words in the plight of millions is jarring. The President seems naively unable to recognize that the mullahs will consider him to be “meddling” regardless of what he says or does not say — so if the penalty is the same, why not take a strong stand for freedom?

Iran is certainly a different situation than Poland and Ukraine, but even lending some encouraging support to the idea of freedom as the right of all the protesters in the streets would be something, and something worth saying — he would not even have to make a statement as strong as Grand Ayatollah Montazeri in order to achieve such a goal. There is little risk in giving support to these ideas — in recognizing that the people who have taken to the streets do so not because there is such a great difference between having Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in this mostly figurehead position, but because this election has come to embody the disenfranchisement of an entire nation.

This is a moment for Iran where the wheel will turn, in one direction or the other. President Obama’s reluctance to give even the smallest nudge is a sign that he either does not understand, or refuses to acknowledge, the world in measures larger than himself.

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