A number of Obama’s critics have pointed out a disparity between Obama’s treatment of Iran on the one hand – and Israel and Honduras on the other.
In their view, Obama has refused to take a side in Iran even though he clearly should be on the side of the protesters if he values life, liberty, and the American way. In Israel, Obama has pressured the Israelis while giving free reign to the Palestinians who are really at fault. While in Honduras, Obama has clearly taken the side of the leftist friend of Hugo Chavez who was removed from office with the endorsement of courts and Congress of Honduras as they sought to protect their democracy from the president’s power grab. In all of these cases, they claim, Obama has taken the side of anti-democratic forces – and only interfered with our “friends” – presumably because Obama is desperate for the approval of the European Union, which is in itself anti-democratic and leftist. This portrayal of Obama is based on their observation that in Iran Obama has reacted to major violations of the values he claims to hold with muted tones – but in Israel and Honduras he has reacted to minor violations with strident tones.
This caricature of Obama presumes he is acting in bad faith at all times, which is increasingly the sole item of agreement among the Republican opposition; and it attributes to Obama a nonsensical and inconsistent worldview. But you don’t have to be a right-winger to notice the sharp differences in tone between Obama’s cautious approach to Iran and his more aggressive approaches in Honduras and Israel.
David Rothkopf proposes one explanation – that frankly seems a bit too Beltway for me, but I’m sure is a factor in Obama’s change in tone between the Iranian coup d’etat and the Honduran one:
[A] reason for the swift action on Honduras is that old faithful of U.S. foreign policy: the law of the prior incident. This law states that whatever we did wrong (or took heat for) during a preceding event we will try to correct in the next one … regardless of whether or not the correction is appropriate. A particularly infamous instance of this was trying to avoid the on-the-ground disasters of the Somalia campaign by deciding not to intervene in Rwanda. Often this can mean tough with China on pirated t-shirts today, easy with them on WMD proliferation tomorrow, which is not a good thing. In any event, in this instance it produced: too slow on Iran yesterday, hair-trigger on Honduras today.
While I’m sure the law of prior incident played a role, it seems to me that there is a more basic explanation for this disparity – which likewise explains the difference between Obama’s approach towards Israel. The difference in how Obama dealt with these various crises comes from how Obama understands power in foreign relations. The President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie H. Gelb, in Power Rules, defines it:
Power is getting people or groups to do something they don’t want to do. It is about manipulating one’s own resources and position to pressure and coerce psychologically and politically….And American leaders would do well to learn, finally, that power shrinks when it is wielded poorly. Failed or open-ended wars diminish power. Threats unfulfilled diminish power. Mistakes and continual changing of course also diminish power.
Teddy Roosevelt understood this implicitly when he said:
Speak softly and carry a big stick.
Alternatively, George W. Bush used grand language, made many threats:
From Egypt to Georgia, President Bush … wrote rhetorical checks he had no intention (or ability) to cash.
What Bush did not seem to realize – and what right-wingers today still do not seem to realize – is that it weakens the United States to declare, “We are all Georgians!” as Russia invades Georgia and we do nothing – as happened under Bush. Yet the rhetoric is not the problem – as it actually strengthened America when John F. Kennedy declared, “We are all Berliners” and the Soviet Union, given the lengths Presidents Truman and Eisenhower had gone already to protect West Berlin, believed the young president was willing to protect Berlin at high cost. Many right-wingers have cited Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” as a model for what Obama should say to Iran. But what made Reagan’s exhortation more than mere empty rhetoric and bluster was the personal relationship he had with Gorbachev after years of meeting with him. And when Reagan made this statement, he was not demanding it – he was rather challenging Gorbachev to live by the values he claimed he held. Reading the actual speech this challenge is prefaced by an “if.” This is a very different proposal than what right-wingers want Obama to say: which is to endorse one side in an internal conflict and refuse to negotiate with this member of the “Axis of Evil.” Reagan on the other hand negotiated with the “Evil Empire” and stayed out of internal Soviet politics – realizing that the endorsement of an enemy could be toxic.
What Obama has shown in the past several weeks is an impatience with hollow rhetoric which presumes conflicts in other countries are really about us. The striking oratory he does use always seems to have a specific purpose – to reach out to Muslims angered by what they see as a war against them, for example – or to call on Europeans to send more troops to Afghanistan. Obama sees words in foreign policy as tools to be used rather than ways of expressing our feelings about other nations. Thus, despite his apparent feelings about Iran – and his great sympathy for the Green Wave – he does not feel the need to express this publicly if he does not see what it will accomplish. With many Iranians publicly saying they did not want Obama to take the side of the protesters publicly as it would undermine them (for example, here and here), he had little reason to do so. So far he had not been willing to undermine his and America’s power by using puffery and empty threats on Iran just to please his domestic audience, despite pressure from the right-wing.
But Obama did speak more forcefully on Israel and Honduras. Why? Because in these two places he has significant leverage – and his words can have an impact. Also – in neither of these places was America regularly called “The Great Satan.” (Imagine if Ahmadinjad had endorsed Obama in our election. Would that have helped Obama?) With regards to these nations, Obama can say what America wants and put pressure on those in control there for it to happen as America supplies significant funds to both nations – and has diplomatic, economic, and military alliances.
Speaking about Iran, on the other hand, Obama can only offer wish lists – which he would not be able to pressure Iran to fulfill – and when Iran ignored him, America would look weaker.
I also believe there is another factor at work. I have already stated that I believe the Obama Doctrine – that will and is guiding his foreign policy – is a focus on creating and maintaining states of consent. One of the basic principles which is necessary to create a state of consent is Rule of Law; another is the freedom of people to peacefully protest and speak freely. Obama has limited himself to condemning those actions which have violated the principles underpinning a state of consent. Not having direct knowledge of the election results in Iran, he remained quiet – though the administration raised questions. When confronted with evidence of the violent suppression of peaceful protests and attacks on free speech, he condemned these in strong terms – though he still refused to take a side, saying the battle was internal. In the case of Honduras, the State Department had been working with opponents of President Zelaya as he took illegal and unconstitutional actions to see how Zelaya could be checked. This is why they knew so quickly that the coup d’etat was a clear violation of the Rule of Law. The American State Department had been working with the Honduran Congress and other leaders to determine what the constitutional steps would be to remove Zelaya. At the same time, the intervention of the military set a bad precedent, undermining ability of the people to consent to their government. As Der Spiegel explained:
Anyone who sees the coup as some sort of effort to rescue democracy must ask themselves what version of democracy involves removing the elected leader of a country from office while holding a pistol to their head.
Obama has here still neglected to side with either party – instead insisting both parties follow their commitments to the law of their land, which the military violated. The American position is that Zelaya should resume his place as rightful president – and impeachment or other proceedings could then occur, although the deal being negotiated instead merely ties his hands to prevent him from any further dictatorial actions (demonstrating that the military actually weakened their hand in dealing with Zelaya in overreacting.)
In each of these cases, Obama displays a common goal – to maintain and allow the space for states of consent – free from military or other violent forms of coercion.
What right-wingers are declaring inconsistency is one of results – not goals. The differences in responses can be quite clearly explained by looking at what leverage Obama had and by a consistent moral demand that the nations of the world govern by consent and not force.
[The above image is a product of the United States government.]