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.