Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Half A Mo'

One of the more troubling aspects of the way the "loyal opposition" conducted themselves during the Bush years was the tendency of liberals to almost immediately criticize and second guess President Bush's foreign policy decisions. These knee-jerk critiques often proved to pointless and unfounded over time as events played out. And many who defended Bush's decisions oft gave deference to the office of POTUS with the rationale that unless you were privy to the same information and intelligence the president was, you couldn't necessarily accurately judge the merits of those decisions.

Now, it appears that much of this deference has disappeared as conservative commentators are flailing President Obama for his reaction (or lack of) to the turmoil in Iran following the election. I'm not going to pretend that I have the foggiest idea what's really going on in Iran because I don't. But while there is widespread acceptance that the election was highly fraudulent if not stolen in most quarters, there are also authoritative voices who say that however imperfect the election may have been Ahmadinejad did actually win.

At this point, I don't think we know enough to draw decisive conclusions about what really happened. But I am willing to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt and assume that he knows a lot more than we do about the Iranian election and his reticence to act or speak more forcefully may be based on his enhanced view of the unfolding events.

I also think that we should tread carefully when it comes to supporting and encouraging the budding protest movement in Iran. There are real and practical limits to what the U.S. could or would be willing to do and we need to be smart about not letting the rhetoric outpace that reality.

In today's WSJ, Bret Stephens--one of the critics of President Obama's silence--makes a very apt historical comparison:

Someday a future president may have to apologize to Iranians for Mr. Obama's nonfeasance, just as Mr. Obama apologized for the Eisenhower administration's meddling. But the better Eisenhower parallel is with Hungary in 1956. Then as now a popular uprising coalesced around a figure (Imre Nagy in Hungary; Mir Hossein Mousavi in Iran), who had once been a creature of the system. Then as now it was buoyed by inspiring American rhetoric about freedom and democracy coming over Voice of America airwaves.

And then as now the administration effectively turned its back on the uprising when U.S. support could have made a difference. Hungary would spend the next 33 years in the Soviet embrace. One senses a similar fate for Iran, where Mr. Ahmadinejad's "victory" signals the ultimate ascendancy of the ultra-militants in the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the paramilitary Basij, intent on getting what they want and doing as they please even in defiance of their old clerical masters. Which means: Get ready for a second installment of the Iranian cultural revolution. Mr. Ahmadinejad signaled as much when he promised to go after the corrupt elements of the old regime, particularly the circle around former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who openly opposed the incumbent prior to Friday's poll.

While I agree with Stephens that Hungary in 1956 provides a good parallel to Iran today, I draw a very different lesson from him. One of the tragedies of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviets was that they were lead to believe that the West would come to their aid in their moment of need and stop the Soviets from crushing their bid for freedom. But the reality was that the West--in particular the United States--was not about to go to war with the USSR over Hungary. So at the end of the day, all of the moral support in the world meant nothing when the Soviets rolled their tanks in.

Today, we are not going to go to war with Iran to support those in the streets of Tehran demonstrating against the regime. And while it's true that there are a whole host of things we can do short of war to show our support, we should be careful not to make promises we can't deliver on or set unrealistic expectations among the Iranian dissidents.

Given that perspective, I'm not yet ready to jump on board the bandwagon demanding that President Obama immediately do more. Let's give the president a little more time and his office a little more of the deference on foreign affairs that it deserves. Patience and prudence.

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