Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Say the Magic Words" on Iran

Responding to Republican criticisms of President Obama's response to the political crisis in Iran, and demands that the president get "tougher" or "lead" the international response, Democratic Indiana Senator Evan Bayh wondered on Chris Matthews' Hardball show last night, "What are the magic words that would satisfy them?" (the Republicans). (And although Bayh is well to the right of me and I don't agree with much of what he says, a good example of the American discussion is this surprisingly sophisticated discussion during his appearance on Fox News Sunday.) This is an excellent question on several levels.

First, just asking the question draws attention to a fundamental reality: there is nothing much more than rhetoric that anyone outside of Iran can offer. Military action is unthinkable; I'm assuming we don't need to spend much time discussing that. Economic and diplomatic sanctions of various kinds have been in place for many years, and tightening them (or even maintaining them as they are) is a bad idea for two reasons: they make things worse for ordinary Iranis who are already in difficult economic straits (this election was largely fought out over domestic economic policy, not foreign policy), and sanctions and other punitive actions change the subject from an internal Irani political struggle to a struggle with hostile outside powers: exactly the kind of narrative change that the hard-liners want.

Which leads to the second level of meaning of Bayh's question about "magic words": to whom would President Obama be speaking when he uttered these mysterious words that would satisfy his conservative critics in the US? To the Iranian regime? That would just be handing them ammunition for their demagoguery. To the Iranian people? Do US conservatives want the president to egg them on into more dangerous territory, without any ability to back them up? That has happened before. To the international community? The Europeans a) have made it clear that they are tired of, and hostile towards, US domination of international security politics and b) very badly need to prove to the world, to the US, and to themselves that they can indeed provide a real alternative to the US on security problems and get real results, and the US badly needs for them to develop this capacity as well.

So that leaves the president talking to the US. More precisely, the Republicans would like to get into a political football game with the administration and see if they can score some points. So they are appealing to the US public: "See, the Democratic president isn't tough enough. He's weak in his response to the crisis in Iran." This is their inevitable position, because their only goal is to regain political power. And that means that there are no magic words that would satisfy them. This is the card that they have to play, and they have to play it.

What Obama needs to do is not speak to the Iranians or to "the world," he needs to educate the American people. His speech in Cairo was truly extraordinary in any number of ways (showing respect for the Koran, for example), but one of the most important things he did was to simply state publicly that the US had helped to engineer the 1953 coup that ousted the democratically-elected Mohammed Moseddeq and installed "Shah" Reza Pahlevi, who ruled autocratically and without democratic process until the Islamic revolution of 1979. All this because Mosaddeq dared to challenge the monopoly of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the British government's largest financial asset at the time. By simply acknowledging these events, President Obama probably did, in fact, contribute to the atmosphere of transformation now welling up from the young population of Iran. The Republicans, in their belligerence and willful obtuseness towards history, would push the Iranian mindset back to 1979; Obama is 2009.

An irony is that speaking in Cairo, with a speech that was listened to closely across the Muslim world, a large part of Obama's audience was already well aware of the Cold War history of US and British excesses in the region. But it is in the US that this needs to be understood, not just for reasons of principle, but for the very urgent practical reason that it explains the need for US reticence on current events in Iran. Any perception that the US is actively meddling in the events happening there now will play straight into the hands of the hard-liners. Obama understands this. Who are worse: the Republicans who don't understand this because they don't bother to know our history, or the Republicans who understand this perfectly well?

The tricky part for an American president is that he must never appear to be anything less than completely patriotic, making explicit lectures about past errors and misdeeds difficult. But I think that Obama should just lay it all out there. The Republican Party assumes that Americans are idiots (just the way they like it). What happens when one assumes that they're smart? I teach students for a living and I can answer that question: assume people are smart and they quickly reveal themselves to be just that.

1 comment:

H. said...

Thanks Andy,

Well said. It is hard to know what is going on in Iran. My email communications are sporadic at the moment and I have not called yet (shall do so today). The last I heard was that there was martial law without of course officially there being one.

I guess every US president shall have an Iran problem :-).