Political Culture: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mahmoud A.?

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

(Editor’s note: The author promises there will be no further Sound of Music references in this column.)

President Obama’s been taking it on the chin a lot lately, from both sides. Liberals are mad because he’s not moving quickly enough on gay rights – this week’s granting of some domestic-partner benefits (but not health care) to some gay federal workers was an insufficient sop, at best, and certainly not enough to make up for the Justice Department’s defense of DoMA or the administration’s foot-dragging on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. They’re also worried he’s going to be too quick to throw the “public option” under the bus while he seeks a compromise on health care reform. As for the right wing … well, they’re pretty much anti-everything, and their radical fringes are taking out their frustration over losing power in ever more frightening ways.

So far, Obama seems to be letting the criticism roll off his back. Check it – the dude’s so bad-ass he can swat a fly off his own hand!

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Don’t try this at home, Rush Limbaugh. (Though the toxins seeping through your skin might be enough to stun the bug, at least.) Sarah Palin would tell Todd to shoot it off her hand from a helicopter, and he might even succeed – though not before the fly knocked up her daughter. Heeeeeeeyyyyyyyy-yo!

Anyway, the Republicans’ most recent round of armchair-quarterbacking takes Obama to task for his response – or, more correctly, his lack of much response – to last Friday’s “election” in Iran. Obama has taken a wait-and-see approach as Mir Hossein Mousavi’s supporters have escalated their protests of the apparently rigged result that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, at least for the moment. Obama, as we all know, has committed himself to the idea that engagement, rather than the isolation and demonization pursued by the Bush administration, is the best way to encourage Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. And now he recognizes that, as Don Rumsfeld might say, we’re going to have to engage the government Iran has, not the government we might wish it had.

Obama also realizes that he possesses no leverage whatsoever to influence the outcome, and he doesn’t want to leave any impression that the protests are somehow being orchestrated by the U.S., recognizing the negative impact such a perception would have across the Middle East. It’s a common-sense, realpolitik strategy of the sort that Henry Kissinger would appreciate. But, surprise surprise, it’s not nearly good enough for conservative hawks, who lately seem overcome with echoes of “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” as though it’s the bravest and most erudite phrase ever uttered. They’re painting Obama (again) as Neville Chamberlain and demanding that he not only blast Ahmadinejad and the mullahs who actually rule Iran, but also egg on the protestors to more and more dramatic action.

“Obama should give another speech,” wrote Stephen Hayes in the National Review. “He does not need to call openly for an uprising, but … he should be amplifying the voices of the Iranians who have, once again, been deprived of any say in how they will be governed, and using them to pressure the Iranian regime at a time when it is plainly very fragile.” Meanwhile, conservative (though Obama-friendly) columnist Kathleen Parker wrote, “Rather than expressing passive concern, he should actively urge [her emphasis] the Iranian government to not use violence against peaceful demonstrators.” And Bill Kristol conjured a scenario in which a stronger president would join with the Europeans to impose international election monitors upon the Iranians. (To which one can only ask, “At the point of which not-already-pointed-elsewhere American gun?”)

Neocon dunderhead Robert Kagan dove completely off the deep end yesterday, writing idiotically in the Washington Post that Obama is not only acquiescing to a stolen election, but is so attached to the idea of engaging Ahmadinejad that he must be disappointed that democracy is rearing its ugly head in Iran. The dispute “is not good news for the president,” he wrote, “but, rather, an unwelcome complication in his strategy of engaging and seeking rapprochement with the Iranian government on nuclear issues … His strategy toward Iran places him objectively on the side of the government’s efforts to return to normalcy as quickly as possible, not in league with the opposition’s efforts to prolong the crisis.”

All this backseat driving is easy for conservatives reminiscing about George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda,” since they now hold no power over the nation’s foreign policy and don’t have to concern themselves with the consequences. It’s also understandable, even separate from their determination to oppose every move Obama makes. It is impossible to be unmoved by the heroic protests in Tehran, and I’m sure Obama is quietly hoping (like the rest of us) that the unrest will unseat Ahmadinejad and serve as a harbinger for true democracy there. On a purely emotional level, I’d love to hear Obama give that speech – the one in which he tells the world that America stands with the Iranian people, and demands that their true intentions be implemented. It’s a great speech – the kind that would fill a democratic people with defiant pride (U.S.A.! U.S.A.!) … the kind that W. probably would have given without caring about (or even thinking about) the repercussions. (He, like his supporters who are now blasting Obama, also would have to ignore the hypocrisy in demanding that the people’s will be respected in Iran, considering the shit they pulled in 2000 and ’04.)

But the fact that such a speech would sound so good, so right … so American … doesn’t mean Obama should give it. In fact, he shouldn’t; it’s not in the Iranian people’s best interests, nor in ours. Just ask George H.W. Bush, who directed such a remark at Iraqis during the Gulf War in 1991, suggesting that they “take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” When Kurds and Shi’ites attempted to do just that in the war’s aftermath, Saddam’s troops brutally slaughtered them by the tens of thousands … while Bush sat by and watched, having no intention of committing American forces to their rescue. Rightfully or not – Bush had never explicitly promised to provide military support – he came to be seen as having started something he wasn’t willing to finish, and his triumph in rallying the world to “kick Saddam out of Kuwait” was tarnished.

Conversely, consider W.’s brashness in April 2002 when he rushed to congratulate the military junta that had temporarily forced Hugo Chavez from power in Venezuela. Sadly, the takeover lasted less than 48 hours, after which Chavez was re-installed, loaded for bear with animosity toward the U.S. and able to use Bush’s quick trigger finger to accuse him of being the coup’s puppet master. Bush’s subsequent efforts to isolate Chavez didn’t work any better than the rest of his abysmal foreign-policy initiatives, and Chavez has spent the last seven years talking trash about us to the rest of Latin America, to our considerable detriment.

The third historical precedent being trotted out this week is Bush 41’s relative silence during the Chinese student uprising that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. He was criticized as being too much in China’s pocket (as a former U.S. ambassador to that country), and was derided for failing to caution its government or support the students more strongly, just as Obama is being pilloried now. However, Bush’s response was the appropriate one. He allowed events to play out, as they would have done with or without his intensified involvement, and after the government’s crackdown he implemented the sorts of sanctions that, truthfully, are pretty much the only real recourse one sovereign power can take against another – particularly one the size of China – unless it’s willing to use force.

There’s no guarantee that the protests in Iran are going to turn out any better than Tiananmen Square did. But the fact that Iran is a nation of 70 million, rather than a billion, doesn’t mean Obama can bully the mullahs into doing the right thing – or that his words can miraculously turn Tehran’s protesters into a Revolutionary Guard-defying fighting force. That’s the mistake the Bushes made in Iraq and Venezuela: believing that the great and powerful United States could force its favored outcome on a lesser power via a mere expression of its will, with no leverage to back it up.

President Obama is a man of many inspirational words, but there are times when even a trap as magical as his needs to stay (at least relatively) shut. This is one of those times. Conservatives have been fervently wishing he would pipe down for a year and a half; it’s ironic, and (not surprisingly) not helpful, that they’re so hellbent on putting words in his mouth now.