Archive for June, 2009

Michael Jackson’s Gift to the Ayatollah Khamenei

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

David Rothkopf makes a good point:

Personally, I found the obsessive retrospectives about Michael Jackson a little disgusting. His commercial success for a few years as a pop singer seemed to trump the dark and of his life. But he was no hero. He was certainly no one to be celebrating. Unless of course, you were an ayatollah. Because one of the truly transcendental ironies of recent history has to be the fact that a symbol of the worst sort of Western spiritual and social corruption…celebrity worship, drug culture, financial excess, debauchery…ended up providing just the distraction that the keepers of the Islamic Revolution’s flame in Tehran needed to direct the world’s attention away from their abuses of their own people.

A “Smart” Girl’s Partisanly-Selective Indignation

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

I know the blogosphere has a reputation as a place where any idiot can have a voice. That’s why I’m here.

But I have trouble respecting someone’s opinion when it so slavishly follows the party line as Dawn Kelli Hochhalter-Krauss of “Smart” Girl Nation in a piece posted by Dawn.1 Her article on the “U.S. Foreign Policy Circus” seemed to be of potential interest – though the picture of Obama in clown shoes labeled “Appeaser” was less promising. But her insistent and partisanly-selective indignation quickly lost me. An article that talks about our ballooning structural deficits which fails to mention they stem more from the actions of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush than the current White House occupant – that expresses shock at the fact that a liberal was chummy with a dictator without referencing Bush’s weekends at the ranch with Saudi Arabia’s tyrant and the countless chummy encounters between other prominent right-wingers and dictators; that professes outrage at opening up lines of communication with an enemy – as every President in history save George W. Bush did2; that presents Obama’s response to North Korea as a sign of weakness, while neglecting to give an alternate policy – which George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and presidents going back in history would have appreciated – as there are no good options there.

In short, in another piece posted by Dawn on Smart Girl Politics (in which the author confesses he is incapable of understanding the grammatical complexity of the phrase, “The Audacity of Hope” while trafficking in bizarre anti-Obama conspiracy) is anything but a “smart girl.” She does though have the audacity to attack Obama for not understanding the situation in Honduras and Iran while neglecting to take the time herself to catch up on these matters. It was a bit difficult for me to figure out she didn’t know what she was talking about – as she so rarely cites any sources or facts, instead relying on the gospel of her own opinion. She does give a few indications where she is coming from though – as she cites Fouad Ajami’s clueless op-ed on the Iranian crisis and refers to those opposing the demonstrations as “Ahmadinejad and the Mullahs” – when in fact, Ahmadinejad’s support comes mainly from the Revolutionary Guard and Basiji – and a large number of the mullahs are being rallied against him by Rafsanjani. This “smart girl” also dismissed out of hand the suggestion that the Bush administration’s action enhanced Iranian influence – despite the near-unanimity that it did so, if unintentionally. After all – we did take out two regimes that had opposed Iran, including their mortal enemy, Saddam Hussein.

I think what Hooman Majd (an actual expert on Iran, and indeed an Iranian with an actual stake in the Green Revolution) explained to Jeanne Carstensen of Salon also applies to Smart Girl Politics:

The John McCains of the world, they’re Ahmadinejad’s useful idiots. They’re doing a great job for him.

  1. The article was posted by Dawn but written by Kelli. Several other edits made given this. []
  2. Including Reagan over the objections of his right-wing staff. []

The Rule of Law in Honduras

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what did happen and what should have happened in Honduras. What seems most plausible to me at the moment is that President Mel Zelaya attempted an unconstitutional power grab – and the military, the Supreme Court and the Congress then executed a coup d’etat, though perhaps a constitutional one. However, if the Hondoruran constitition allows such flexibility and military involvement, I tend to doubt it’s longetivity. This description of Honduras’s constitutionalism by the U.S. Department of the Army also does not bode well:

Honduran constitutions are generally held to have little bearing on Honduran political reality because they are considered aspirations or ideals rather than legal instruments of a working government.

The actions of the military – in suppressing the media, in denying the opposition the right to protest, in imposing curfews, in refusing the orders of their constitutional commander-in-chief, and then deposing him – bear all the hallmarks of a coup d’etat, even though the military was authorized to take the actions it did by the other branches of government. Much of the problem seems to stem from the fact that Honduras’ constitution does not include a provision for impeachment and removal of a president – a rather significant gap.

What is truly depressing though is the immediate, knee-jerk, factually-deficient incorporation of this crisis into the Culture War politics that apparently is all the right-wing nutjobs have left. I refer specifically to Mary Anastasia O’Grady – who misleadingly suggests that the only leaders to object to this coup d’etat are Hillary Clinton, Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chavez. In reality, virtually every nation has  – from Europe to Latin America and around the world. But O’Grady is sadly not alone in her idiocy.

If we are to have a foreign policy in which we support the right of a people to consent to or withdraw their consent from their government, then before we judge the situation by which side of the American political spectrum Zelaya would be on, we must evaluate whether or not the Rule of Law was respected – and by which side, if any. The foundation of a people’s consent is the just and even application of the Rule of Law – without which democracy is a mere sham. O’Grady and those other right-wingers bowdlerizing foreign policy into the Culture War have no patience for niceties, preferring idiotic outrage over informed indecision.

[Image by bdeboikot licensed under Creative Commons.]

A Positive Indicator in Iran?

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

I’m not in a position to judge how significant this is, but this (in a Times piece by Michael Slackman) seems like a promising indicator of the situation in Iran:

European security experts, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, confirmed reports in Italian and Turkish newspapers that large sums of money had been sent to havens outside the country from banks controlled by the Revolutionary Guards.

The Obama Doctrine

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

America has – since its inception – been a major influence on the world order, from the explosive idea of American democracy that reverbrated through Europe in the 18th century – to Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points and FDR’s dismantling of the colonial empires and George W. Bush’s calls for elections to drain the swamps of tyranny. Since the 20th century, American presidents have been judged in a large part by how they affected the world order. Which is why today it is worth speculating what impact Barack Obama’s young presidency will have – and what vision of a world order Obama has already sought to articulate. I predict – and propose – that Obama’s vision will be of a world order grounded in the proposal that each nation must obtain the free consent of it’s people to govern. This idea is an interesting variation on the themes of American presidents since Woodrow Wilson, and indeed since America’s founding.

Since the beginning of the 20th Century, American presidents have had an outsize role on the world stage, especially in shaping the world order by laying out standards for the moral legitimacy of nations. The world order at the turn of the 19th century would be turned on it’s head by American interventions. At that point, colonialism was accepted; the right of a people to govern themselves was not; and most rules related to international warfare – from standards for treating prisoners to a respect for the sovreignty of nations (or at least European ones). But this system broke down and conflagration that followed was only ended with timely American intervention. Woodrow Wilson used this intervention as leverage to explain how the world order should change – and his vision of a world at peace captured a weary Europe. At the core of Wilson’s Fourteen Points was an amendment to the world order, as Wilson saw peace as contingent on granting peoples’ their right of self-determination:

We are glad, now that we see the facts with no veil of false pretense about them to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve.

Wilson believed this goal – of democracy and therefore, peace – was best accomplished and maintained through treaties and a League of Nations. Of course, we all know that Wilson’s vision collapsed as he lay debilitated by a stroke and the Senate refused to ratify the treaty he had fought for. The next three presidents had a less expansive view of the American role in the world – and mainly ignored foreign policy matters.

Franklin Roosevelt focused on domestic matters as well as he sought to end the Great Depression at home. But as he positioned the country to enter World War II he framed the conflict as one of democracy against tyranny. And FDR saw the colonialism of Europe as another form of tyranny. Thus, as he, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin decided on the outline of a post-war world, FDR was able to secure the independence of many countries throughout the world from their colonial masters in Europe. At the same time, he bargained away Eastern Europe to the tyranny of Communism, convinced that the Soviet Union would take it anyway. FDR thus set in motion a new world order in which colonialism was no longer tolerated, but Communism was.1

This set up the Cold War as a battle of two competing attempts at changing the world order. Truman, Eisenhower, and JFK were less concerned about shaping the order of things than they were in securing advantages against the Soviet Union. What mattered more than how a regime acted or how it was legitmized was whose side it was on.  So, while all spoke highly of democracy – they were willing to accept all allies in their struggle against the Soviet Union – democratic or not. And they were willing to overthrow democratically elected governments if it fit their interests. Later, Richard Nixon, as a proponent of real politik, did not believe in the attempts to shape the world order with moral commandments, and thus he did not attempt to do so. But his significant contribution was to recruit China into the American-led world order (or at least ensure that it was not opposed to it) – thus paving the way for its gradual acclimation to the American-led order over the next decades.

When Jimmy Carter came into the White House, he attempted to redefine again what the world order saw as a legitimate government. Rather than focusing on the struggle against the Soviet Union, he attempted to set universal standards by which to judge both the American-led order and the Soviet order. He described this universal standard as “human rights”:

Because we are free we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere. Our moral sense dictates a clearcut preference for these societies which share with us an abiding respect for individual human rights. We do not seek to intimidate, but it is clear that a world which others can dominate with impunity would be inhospitable to decency and a threat to the well-being of all people.

With his  focus on human rights, Carter and more hawkish liberals such as Scoop Jackson attempted to point out the grave flaws of the Soviet system. This focus also explains why Carter championed the rights of Palestinians and pushed the Shah of Iran to allow greater freedoms to his citizens to protest his regime, leading in 1979 to his downfall.

Ronald Reagan used this foundation to call the Soviet Union the “evil empire” – though he abandoned the self-criticism that came with setting a universal standard. However, Reagan soon began to see the Soviet Union and the leaders he met with as more than the caricatures of evil he had railed against – and he sought to negotiate, to the consternation of many of his staff. Reagan believed that Communism was contrary to human nature – and that traditional forces – greed, laziness, religion – would be its downfall. Reagan’s genius was to combine in clear, forceful terms the human rights approach of Carter with the anti-tyranny framework of FDR – and to push the world to reject the Soviet world order as “evil.” Perhaps more importantly, he benefited from America’s dynamic economy and the Soviet Union’s dependence on oil revenues which, in sinking, sank the USSR.

George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton – despite all the talk of a “New World Order” as the Soviet Union fell – only sought to enforce through diplomacy, sanctions, and when necessary military action, the previous conceptions of the world order. Bush condemned the crackdown at Tianamen on Carter-like human rights grounds and pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait as he violated the primary rule of the world order for the past century: do not invade another country. Bush and Clinton did begin to expand free trade as a component of the world order – and Clinton sought to create a consensus around amending the world order – creating delegitimizing exceptions beyond invading sovereign nations and the maltreatment of prisoners for terrorism, genocide, the development of weapons of mass destruction, and drug trafficking.

With September 11, though, George W. Bush felt compelled to shake up the world order – and instead of seeking mere amendments, he sought to change the basic ground upon which a regime was legitimized, recalling Woodrow Wilson’s demand and justification for self-determination.  As Bush declared in his second inaugural:

We have seen our vulnerability and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder, violence will gather and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.

But while Wilson had sought to use the leverage America had in the aftermath of the War to End All Wars, and FDR sought to use the leverage America in the aftermath of World War II, Bush seemed to believe the sheer rhetorical power of his words were enough. As Gregory Scoblete described it:

President Bush did speak out boldly against North Korea and Iran. And both made considerable gains in their nuclear capabilities. From Egypt to Georgia, President Bush … wrote rhetorical checks he had no intention (or ability) to cash.

George W. Bush had radically declared that no nation was legitimate if it was not a democracy – and he declared that it was a vital national security interest for America to ensure that other nations were in fact democracies. This – if applied – would overturn the entire world order. Under this Bush Doctrine, America would become a revolutionary state exporting our values via force, invading for ideology, and fomenting revolution. It would mean that many of our allies were illegitimate governments. But these powerful words were undercut by apparent hypocrisy – as Bush, after insisting on elections, rejected those whose results came out contrary to his wishes – from Hamas in Palestine to Chavez in Venezuala At the same time, Bush was open to charges of hypocrisy as he had supported a coup against the democratically-elected Hugo Chavez – and as he rejected the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories. This freedom he sought to export to the world was also threatening to many – as majority-Muslim nations and their sharia law were seen to conflict with the Western model of freedom.

But the opportunity Bush left Obama was a significant one – by not being Bush, and by being a black man who had captured the imagination of America and much of the world, and most importantly, by coming into office after America’s radical actions had severely undermined the world order, Obama begins his presidency with a greater opportunity to re-shape the world order than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It remains to be seen what Obama will do with this opportunity – and if he will pursue the agenda that some in his campaign, including Samantha Power, believe is necessary – reinventing the international institutions maintaining the world order. So far, what Barack Obama has seemed to suggest is an amendment to Bush’s radical notion of democratic revolutions in his Cairo speech, as he referred not to “democracy” but to “consent”:

So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere…

No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

America has re-defined its moral goals for the world over the past century: from self-determination, to freedom from tyranny, to freedom from Communism, to human rights, to the free market, to democracy, and now, with Obama, the consent of the governed.

  1. Mainly because he had no choice but to accept the powerful Soviet Union’s right to exist and have a sphere of influence. []

Obama Hasn’t Betrayed The Gay Rights Movement (Yet)

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Or, In Quasi-Defense of Waiting

From The Colbert Report:

JIM FOURATT: I’m very troubled by Barack Obama because I think most gay and lesbian people in this country voted for Barack Obama and expected him to talk about our issues and he’s playing a classic liberal role. It’s always about just, “Wait, wait, wait…” We’re waiting and waiting and waiting and I’m quite frankly, as most people are, sick and tired of it. We expected Barack Obama to step up to the plate and do what is principled, to do what is right.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Why don’t you do the smart thing: If you’re tired of liberals saying one thing and then saying, “Wait, wait, wait,” when they get into office – why don’t you come over to the conservatives because we’re honest. We say, “No, no, no,” from the very beginning. Isn’t there something to be said for honesty?

JIM FOURATT: Actually, there is something to be said for that because [then] we know who our enemies are…It’s deeply troubling and I asked Cornell West about this…

STEPHEN COLBERT [Interrupting]: Brother West, he’s a friend of the show.

JIM FOURATT: He said that, “Barack Obama is wrong but he will come along.” I don’t know if Martin Luther King, what he would have said if someone said to him, “We’ll come along on your rights.” I don’t know about Rosa Parks, if she would have got off the bus and not sat down.

Frank Rich approvingly cites a gay activist who met with Obama in the White House this past week:

Chrisler seized the moment to appeal to the president on behalf of her boys. “The worst thing you can experience as parents is to feel your children are discriminated against,” she told him. “Imagine if you have to explain every day who your parents are and that they’re as real as every family is.” Chrisler said that she and her children “want a president who will make that go away,” adding, “I believe in his heart he wants that to happen, his political mistakes notwithstanding.” [my emphasis]

Jennifer Chrisler and Jim Fouratt clearly express the growing feeling of anger and even betrayal directed at Barack Obama from the LGBT community. They remember that Bill Clinton led them on, took their money and votes, and then created the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and passed the Defense of Marriage act which Obama’s Justice Department is now defending. Similarly, many opponents of the War on Drugs have become angry and disappointed that Obama has barely advanced their issues. Civil libertarians have been likewise disappointed by Obama’s use of the State Secrets Privilege, withholding of documents and photographs related to Bush administration torture, and other defenses and continuations of Bush-era executive aggrandizement.

I count myself as a supporter of the goals of all three groups. But I see the feelings of anger and betrayal directed against Barack Obama as nothing less than the result of naivete. As if electing Barack Obama president would solve any of these problems! As if a president is morally responsible for all things status quo! As if history and change were passed down from above – rather than bubbling up from below.

These feelings of betrayal are based on profound misunderstandings of the presidency and how change happens.

The President of the United States is not The Leader. He is merely a leader. George Will has quoted Calvin Coolidge on this general theme a few times recently:

It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.

Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, who many did consider a great man, had his own way of telling his constituencies the same message:

I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.

The “cult of the presidency” is a source of moral rot in this nation. If you belive in an issue, fight for it! Don’t whine about being betrayed. There are better uses of your energy. More important, it reflects a misunderstanding of what the role of the president is.

As to citing figures from the Civil Rights era: Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King did wait – and wait, and wait for a president to act. And as they waited, they fought for what they believed in – without undue anger or inappropriate feelings to betrayal. They put pressure on Congress, on the White House, on state legislatures, on governors, on courts. And in each of these skirmishes they gained something. Until eventually their movement had achieved a momentum that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The fact is, the role of the activist and the role of the president are very different. To confuse the two as Fouratt does, and as many other activists do, doesn’t help anybody. The president, in having so much power, must have on goal above all – to protect the status quo. He or she can push reforms and changes and improvements – but their dreams must be constrained. The activist can dream of a new world – in which all things are vastly improved – and fight for it and demand it – and be right in doing so. But the president can say no, and be just as justified. For these are their roles. The goal of the activist must be to make the president do what he or she wants – to force them to make a decision which, taking into account political factors, is still an easy one. Abraham Lincoln was a great example of this – as abolitionists pressed for him to emancipate the slaves and go to war with the South but he firmly took an incrementalist position, only making such decisions as he was forced to.

There is a natural tension between the activist and the president because of their roles – but this tension can be productive if both sides understand how change happens. The presidency is an essentially reactive job, with the best presidents reacting with an eye towards achieving larger goals. The activist must provoke these reactions – and create favorable circumstances to shape all political actors’ responses to these actions. And while a president can force an issue or two through given the powers he or she exercises, this “forcing” creates problems and backlash. No president can make prejudice “go away” as Chrisler seems to be counting on. But the president can be expected to make a decision when it is thrust upon him or her. This is why it is important to have a president sympathetic to your aims.

As Matt Yglesias smartly observed:

Repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has become a majoritarian position, but the Obama administration would still prefer to avoid the headaches involved in working to repeal it. At the same time, if a court case were toorder the administration to end this policy, it’s abundantly clear that there would be no critical mass of political support for trying to put it back in place.

In other words, for the activist, it never makes sense to wait; for the president, it almost always does. And both sides – even if they share the same goals – will conflict on strategy. That’s the way things are – and it is by understanding this dynamic that successful movements are built.

The gay rights movement does seem to understand this – Ted Olsen’s and David Boies’s lawsuit notwithstanding. This has been the source of it’s outstanding success – from a time within living memory when psychologists would diagnose “homosexuality” as a disease to today as six states recognize gay marriage. (David Sedaris was especially moving as he spoke of the progress in the past forty years on The Leonard Lopate Show.)  This is no time to abandon a successful strategy.

Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2009-06-26

Friday, June 26th, 2009
  • Joe Klein takes McCain to task for trying “to score political points against the Pres. in the midst of an int’l crisis” http://xurl.jp/kos #
  • Am I the only one who thinks @Drudge_Report ‘s hyping of SC Guv’s “disappearance” is some publicity ploy for Sanford? # [Edit – boy, was I wrong on this one.]
  • How Obama Uses Civility and Respect as Political Weapons http://2parse.com/?p=3167 #
  • There is something truly wrong with the way the right-wing has turned Iran into a polarizing, Culture War issue already… #
  • Ugh ….. Monday …. #
  • Comparing Fox News on what was “unprecedented” during the Bush years versus under Obama: http://www.dailykostv.com/w/001852/ #

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A Different Take on the Iranian Situation

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

M. K. Bhadrakumar writing in the Asia Times last week seemed to have an entirely foreign take on the Iranian crisis. It’s unclear to me if he has a different perspective or if he is just plain wrong. Supporting the idea that he is just wrong is the predictive statement he made about the protests dying out, as he wrote last Thursday – the 18th:

The signs are that the color revolution struggling to be born on the streets of Tehran has had a miscarriage.

He also seems to vaguely suggest that the Iranian Green Revolution is foreign-sponsored – but in a vague way that may just be the result of a poor translation.

Bhadrakumar states that:

Rafsanjani is undoubtedly the West’s favorite poster boy…

I’m not sure where he gets that. Or even what he means by it. But I am pretty certain this isn’t true.

Bhadrakumar also speaks of a Mousavi-Rafsanjani animus which I wasn’t aware of – as most news reports have only mentioned on the Khamenei-Mousavi rivalry – and how Rafsanjani’s timely intervention actually led to Khamenei becoming Supreme Leader.

Finally, he praises the one statement by Obama on the matter that I have seen condemned virtually everywhere:

But Obama is treading softly. He said late on Tuesday there appeared to be no policy differences between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. “The difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised. Either way, we are going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States.”

That’s a cleverly drafted formulation. Prima facie, Obama pleases the regime in Tehran insofar as he appears “stand-offish” as to what ensues through the coming days by way of the street protests or out of the deliberations of Iran’s Guardians Council. Fair enough. But, on the other hand, Obama also is smartly neutralizing any allegation that the Rafsanjani-Khatami-Mousavi phenomenon is in any way to be branded by the Iranian regime as “pro-US”. Obama’s remark helps the Iranian opposition to maintain that its motivations are purely driven by Iran’s national interests.

A Pink Elephant Through the Looking Glass

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

I’ve always thought it was important to get the other side of things, to learn what people you disagree with think, and to consider – at least for a moment – that they may be right. Despite my best efforts, lately, I’ve been finding it harder and harder to understand right-wingers. I can understand many particular positions they take – but on the whole, they seem terribly inconsistent, with their only unifying quality being their abject fear of what Obama will do, and their opposition to everything he is doing. Reading the National Review, I’ve found plenty of plausible arguments – but they seem to be made as debater’s briefs rather than honest attempts at saying what they feel and they all start out with one of two (or sometimes both) competing assumptions: that Obama is idealistic and naive; and that Obama is acting in bad faith by pretending to be naive and idealistic. Yet, having looked at Obama’s character I see something different – an essentially pragmatic man who sees ideals as standards to strive for rather than things attained.

I’ve found that especially on the issue of Iran, the right-wing attacks on Obama’s response to be nearly insane. While the objections themselves are insane, the reason to make them is clear: because politicians are trying to score points against Obama.

After all – the longtime activists for the democracy movement in Iran and experts in the region have said that America must be careful in how it responds to these protests, given our history with Iran. And this is precisely what Obama has done – as he has been cautious to a fault in responding to this rapidly changing situation.

So, yesterday, I was seeking an honest right-winger to read, and one of my Twitter-friends, Tabitha Hale of the Pink Elephant Pundit, posted a link to her opinion about Obama and Iran.  So, down the rabbit hole I went.

The gist of the piece is that American presidents need to cheer-lead freedom  – ’cause that’s just what we do.

This idea is ahistorical to the extent that it does not reflect the many dictatorships we have and continue to support – and more important, the democracies we have overthrown in favor of various forms of despotism. The most famous example of a democracy we have overthrown is in fact Iran – where the CIA (in a rare success) overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran and replaced it with the monarchy of the Shah.  The Shah wasn’t overthrown until 1979 – in a fit of anti-American revolution. (Other instances in which we overthrew democratically-elected leaders: Guatemala in 1954, Congo in 1960, Chile in 1973. And we supported a coup in Venezuela in 2002 that would have removed Chavez, democratically elected there.)

But in our history, there are times when we stood on the side of freedom – and cheer-led – and this itself led to disaster. We cheer-led freedom in Hungary in 1956, telling the dissidents we supported them and leading them to believe that we were prepared to fight with them. And they rose up against the Soviet Union only to be crushed without support. We cheer-led freedom in Iraq in 1991, as George H. W. Bush called on the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam Hussein, only to step aside and let Saddam brutally repress those who had rebelled.

We also have to realize that there are many people in Iran who want freedom but still hate the United States for what we have done to them – and because they have been taught to hate us.

Hale asks at one point  – “Why, then, is the current administration having such a hard time supporting the Iranian people?”

The question itself betrays a basic ignorance of what is going on – the delicate balance that Obama needs to strike (and on which he has occasionally missed.) As good as it might feel to declare America is on the side of the protesters, it is neither in the interest of our government nor of the protesters themselves to closely associate ourselves with them. What Obama has tried to do is to set a standard for judging what the Iranian government does. Explaining that a government that has the consent of its people does not need to resort to violence against its citizens in order to restore order. As one democracy activist said admiringly:

[Obama] shifted the frame from [the question of] ‘were the elections fradulent’ to ‘what’s the responsibility of the Iranian government for peaceful dissent?’

But the most important point to make is that these events in Iran are not about us. It’s about them. And by making it about us, we would be aiding the hardliners in Iran.

Another statement by Hale seems to refer to an alternate reality. She writes: “Some things are more important than your reelection, President Obama” – as a way of chastizing Obama for not speaking out more forcefully. Yet, isn’t it clear that there is nothing the president could do to gain in popularity than to publicly get involved in the Iranian dispute? Liberals are unabashedly on the side of the Iranian people. Conservatives are unabashedly on the side of the Iranian people. Independents too. It might be argued that Obama is being too cautious – but in such a rapidly changing situation, caution is needed. And this caution has nothing to do with politics – but with foreign policy. Politically, some grandstanding would be a no-brainer.

Another gem of a line: “Apparently, Hillary can tell Israel what to do, and pick fights with her counterpart over there… but Iran is a no no.”

There are a few ways to respond to this truly bizarre statement. But one thing that is important to point out is that Obama’s Israel policy is nothing more than the standard U.S. position under George W. Bush, under Bill Clinton, under George H.W. Bush. The difference is that Obama – for the first time since H.W. was in office, is actually serious about the policy.

Implicit in this statement is an assumption that America is the moral arbiter of the world – rather than merely the strongest nation in it. Obviously, one of the reasons that Obama is putting pressure on Israel and not Iran is that we actually have leverage over Israel. We give this small nation over $3 billion in aid a year – a significant percentage of their entire governmental budget. With Iran, we cannot expel their diplomats or withdraw ours; we cannot impose sanctions; we cannot declare them a supporter of terrorism; we cannot stop funding them – we cannot do any of these things because we already did them long ago. Thus, ever the pragmatist, Obama is pressuring Israel to do what is in America’s interest – and is not committing America to a side in Iran (although his recent comments have come very close.) American foreign policy requires America to pursue our interests – not to act as a moral arbiter rewarding those who are just and penalizing those who are not.

Teddy Roosevelt promulgated the African proverb to “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

American administrations have clearly gone wrong when they have spoken loudly without being able to follow up. It dilutes our power to make statements that we are not able or willing to back up.

P.S. Another correction: Hale cites a Steve Schippert from ThreatsWatch as saying that Iran has called in Hamas and Hezbollah to crack down on its internal problems. This is pretty crazy – and would be huge news. Yet so far, Schippert is the only source for this dubious information. I call bullshit.

[Image by ★ maize licensed under Creative Commons.]

The Incoherence of Ajami

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Fouad Ajami wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal op-ed page on Obama’s response to Iran that John McCain (he of the “hip-shooting onanism”) called a “Must read.” You might remember Ajami for writing another op-ed just before the election in which he compared Obama to Eva Peron, Ayatollah Khomenei, and Gamal Nasser – third-world populists who had dictatorial tendencies (if they were not entirely dictators.) Ajami starts from the same starting points most right-wingers take when dealing with Obama – presuming him to be both naive and acting in bad faith. This in itself makes his piece unpersuasive.

But more importantly, in taking on the issue of Iran, Ajami seems to have no understanding of the power struggle actually occuring. Not that I’m an expert – but even I know that the people marching in the streets are chanting slogans from the 1979 revolution – which they still look to as a positive event. They believe they are fighting for the spirit of that Revolution, and they see Ahmadinejad as a perversion of the legacy of this revolution – as the religious order he follows did not participate in it and rejects many aspects of it. Ajami though blunders in the middle of all of this, and lends credence and support to Ahmadinejad by portraying him as “a son of the Ayatollah Khomenei’s revolutionary order.” The crowds Ajami supports reject this – seeing Ahmadinejad’s theft of the election as a repudiation of the 1979 revolution.

At the same time, Ajami profoundly misunderstands Obama’s rhetoric and method. Ajami claims that Obama “believed he could talk rogues and ideologues out of deeply held beliefs.” But what he misses is that Obama actually uses respect and civility as political weapons – in a classic community organizer technique.

And then there is Ajami’s total incoherence on looking at the differences between Obama’s and Bush’s approach to Iran:

[Obama] would entice the crowds, yet assure the autocrats that the “diplomacy of freedom” that unsettled them during the presidency of George W. Bush is dead and buried. Grant the rulers in Tehran and Damascus their due: They were quick to take the measure of the new steward of American power. He had come to “engage” them. Gone was the hope of transforming these regimes or making them pay for their transgressions. The theocracy was said to be waiting on an American opening, and this new president would put an end to three decades of estrangement between the United States and Iran.

But in truth Iran had never wanted an opening to the U.S. For the length of three decades, the custodians of the theocracy have had precisely the level of enmity toward the U.S. they have wanted – just enough to be an ideological glue for the regime but not enough to be a threat to their power.

Ajami doesn’t begin to deal with the coincidence that the fissures within the Iranian regime came suddenly into the open a few months after Obama stopped threatening to bomb Iran and Iran and reached out to them. Yet Ajami admits that the Iranian regime is held together by the “ideological glue” of  “enmity towards the U.S.” If a regime was held together by this, what better way to undermine it than to weaken that glue and break the cycle of escalating moral outrage. (Which again – is precisely the point of Obama’s method of reaching out.)

I don’t claim that Obama’s outreach caused this Iranian Green Revolution – but the removal of the U.S. as a potential invader of your country has a way of freeing up the internal dialogue. Without an external enemy to rally against, you focus on divisions within.

Ajami seems to think that after 30 years of pressure, America needed just a little more time to squeeze the regime before it fell. Now, it’s hopeless. Except, that at the moment, as soon as Obama relaxed our posture, the regime was shaken to its core – with the leading candidate the people rallied behind imitating Obama in several ways and the people on the streets expressing hope that Obama’s election in America might lead to a rapprochement.