Why hold back on Iran? Here’s why.
A good friend of mine asks an important question regarding President Obama’s low-key response to the Iranian election crisis:
…if things go back to normal isn’t all of the bloodshed-the woman bleeding out in the street for all to see in streaming video-all for nothing? […]
I am trying to be a lover of peace…but it is so hard when people are being killed at the hand of a dictator and watching the most influential man in the free world be silent.
I’m truly glad he asked. Here is my response:
1. Though perhaps not well covered by all news sources, Obama has been far from silent. Here are excerpts from his statement on Saturday:
The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.
See the whole statement at Obama statement on Iran violence.
2. Those who understand Iran well are begging the USA not to go further than that. Even conservative Morning Joe agrees:
SCARBOROUGH: All we would do is undermine those people in the street, who the second that they are attached to the United States of America, the country after all that’s been known in Iran as the great Satan since 1979, we will undermine their cause … It’s so shortsighted I find it stunning. […]
What would John McCain and Lindsey Graham specifically have the president say? All of those people that are emailing in and telling me that I’m being liberal? Oh really? I’m being liberal? No I think it’s called restraint. Showing a little bit of restraint. Looking at the battlefield in front of you and not just running up Pickett’s Charge and getting gunned down. If you want to feel good about yourself — and you can only feel good about yourself by screaming about the evils of Iran — fine do that. But our leaders in Washington don’t need to do that because people will be routed in the street the second they are identified with the United States of America.
3. Here’s the core issue: American support is the kiss of death for reform movements in countries like Iran. Ever since the CIA took down the Iranian democracy in 1953, the parties in power now have seen anything American as a threat to national security. If the President says one word that can be construed to suggest that the USA is behind the reformers, the Iranian government will believe it has a national security reason for radical, brutal action against them. It will give them an excuse to a) annihilate the movement (the killing could become far worse than it is now), and b) ignore the reformer’s issues and write them off as foreign-inspired nonsense.
Here’s how the President said it on CBS’s Early Show yesterday:
In an interview with CBS’ Early Show this morning, Obama responded similarly to Scarborough, saying the U.S. has to guard against being used as a scapegoat by the Iranian regime:
“The last thing that I want to do,” the president said, “is to have the United States be a foil for — those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States. That’s what they do. That’s what we’ve already seen. We shouldn’t be playing into that. There should be no distractions from the fact that the — Iranian people are seeking to — let their voices be heard.”
McCain and Graham are growing increasingly isolated, as Republicans in Congress and conservatives in the media endorse Obama’s measured response.
4. It’s a deadly game. Obama could win himself a lot of public support by really giving it to Iran. But, thank God, he knows the world well enough to resist the temptation to do that.
For some reason, American foreign policy has often been tone-deaf, and almost intentionally so. Those who ridicule Obama for the hugely positive receptions he gets in Europe often say, “Who cares what other nations think?” And that becomes an excuse for deep ignorance of the impact of our actions on other nations. We get starry-eyed about our own goodness, and our foreign policy becomes one of doing what feels good to us.
As a result, we often make situations worse rather than better. In this case, understanding Iran means walking more softly rather than letting it all hang out. Here are some historical reasons why:
5. The Bush Administration accidentally torpedoed the reform movement in 2005. A reformer, either Rafsanjani, was the president before Ahmadinejad. He offered to open up relations with the USA, and to try to work together on Iraq, even writing a letter to Bush to propose it.
Bush, ever un-aware of the impact of his actions, saw Iran as an enemy and snubbed the letter (not even responding, I believe). Iranians knew it, blamed their President for having no clout with the West, and replaced the reform-minded President with hard-liner Ahmadinejad. Bye-bye reform, thank you USA.
6. And that is typical of the history of US policy toward Iran. Heavy-handed moves toward control, starting even prior to 1953 (in a move to force Iran to sell us oil at, perhaps, 10% of its value), are what Iranians expect from us. “Here they go again” is what they guard against. We’ve made that bed, and now we lie in it, having virtually disabled ourselves.
We see America as good. They see America as the country that robbed them of democracy and set up a corrupt puppet dictatorship and trained merciless, dreaded secret police who killed thousands, and is likely waiting for a chance to do it again. Freedom and democracy, to the revolutionaries of just 30 years ago, meant getting rid of US influence.
The only way to improve that is to allow Iranians to make their own way until they can trust the USA again. It will take a long time and a lot of patience, for we’ve spent half a century degrading ourselves there. But I think we might be surprised what a little worldwide credibility could accomplish.
Thanks for asking!
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