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Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]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.]

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