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Barack Obama Iran National Security Politics The Opinionsphere

The Incoherence of Ajami

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.

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Barack Obama Politics The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere

How Obama Uses Civility and Respect as Political Weapons

[digg-reddit-me]Jonathan Chait describes “The Obama Method” in a not-yet posted piece on The New Republic. He tries to explain the eerie similarity between how Obama has reached out to moderate Republicans and independents at home while marginalizing right-wingers and how Obama reached out to the majority of Muslims while isolating the extremists in his foreign policy (and specifically the Cairo speech.) Chait also tries to tie this in to different critiques of Obama:

Democratic partisans think the enemy is vicious and must be met with uncompromising force. That’s exactly how conservative foreign policy hawks feel about the world. Unsurprisingly, the right-wing foreign policy critique of Obama today sounds eerily like the partisan Democratic critique of Obama during the primary.

Let’s call this method in foreign policy – which assumes every foreign rival is a reincarnation of Nazi Germany – the Bush doctrine; and in domestic policy, in domestic politics – assuming that all Republicans lie about their goals and probably hate the poor and downtrodden and merely want to aid the rich in getting richer – we can call this the Krugman doctrine. (On the Republican side of this, it would be the Rove doctrine, but that’s not relevant here.) The Bush/Krugman doctrine – in assuming that all opponents are acting in bad faith – is rather simple.

  • Identify your opponents.
  • Tell everyone what you believe and call your opponents names (your skill at name-calling is the only way to demonstrate your moral clarity).
  • Everyone will see how right you are.

This isn’t that bad of an approach for a newspaper column – it can be downright entertaining and sometimes even enlightening. As a basis for foreign policy or domestic political agenda though, it is poisonous – and though it may work for a time, the results diminish rapidly. Obama’s method operates differently:

  • Demonstrate one’s respect for one’s opponent.
  • Start with the assumption they are acting in good faith.
  • Invite them to a conversation about what needs to be done to solve the problem(s) on which they are opponents.
  • If they are acting in good faith, they can be worked with.
  • If they are not, “by demonstrating [one’s] own goodwill and interest in accord, [one] can win over a portion of [one’s] adversaries’ constituents as well as third parties.”

I disagree with Chait that Obama’s method “entails  small acts of intellectual dishonesty in the pursuit of common ground,” though. Chait, for example,  cites the line I criticized in Obama’s Cairo speech in which he called the Middle East the region where Islam “was first revealed.” In this case, I think Chait is right – that this line is intellectually dishonest. But his appreciation for Reagan which Chait also cites seems perhaps a bit exaggerated, but consistent with the rest of Obama’s beliefs – which tend to find a balance between Reaganesque individual responsibility and Kennedyesque calls for national responsibility.

Chait traces this method back to a Obama’s training as a community organizer. He cites a Mark Schmitt piece in The American Prospect which describes the community organizer method of dealing with opponents acting in bad faith:

One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that’s not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists – it’s a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict. It’s how you deal with people with intractable demands – put ‘em on a committee. Then define the committee’s mission your way.

Chait explains why Obama’s approach is so successful:

The rhetoric removes the locus of debate from the realm of tribal conflict – red state versus blue state, Islam versus America – and puts it onto specific questions – Is the American health care system fair? Is terrorism justified? – where Obama believes he can win support from soft adherent of the opposing camp.

Obama’s method seems designed to short-circuit the dynamics of moral outrage that lead to polarization, extremism, and even violence. He illustrated this in his campaign – as he tried to calm his supporters down, defending pro-life demonstraters and on the eve of the election, as his crowd booed McCain, chiding them: “You don’t need to boo. You just need to vote.” And now, in reaching out to the Muslim world he is demonstrating this same grasp of how to defuse the escalating cycle of moral outrage – by treating his opponents with respect and as “people of goodwill.”

A little bit of civility will not remake the world – but it can go a long way in calming tensions.

[Image from the White House at Flickr.]