The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

This Is Not About Making the U.S. Feel Good About Itself

June 15, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

There’s a lot to agree with in my friend George Packer’s post about what’s happening in Iran. But I think George, who excels at intellectual history, might be missing a certain crucial component of the equation when viewing Obama’s actions here through the prism of realism vs. progressivism:

With riot police and armed militiamen beating and, in a few reported cases, killing unarmed demonstrators in the streets of Iran’s cities, for the Obama Administration to continue parsing equivocal phrases serves no purpose other than to make it look feckless. Part of realism is showing that you have a clear grasp of reality—that you know the difference between decency and barbarism when both are on display for the whole world to see. A stronger American stand—taken, as much as possible, in concert with European countries and through multilateral organizations—would do more to improve America’s negotiating position than weaken it. Acknowledging the compelling voices of the desperate young Iranians who, after all, only want their votes counted, would not deep-six the possibility of American-Iranian talks. Ahmadinejad and his partners in the clerical-military establishment will talk to us exactly when and if they think it’s in their interest. Right now, they don’t appear to. And the tens of millions of Iranians who voted for change and are the long-term future of that country will always remember what America said and did when they put their lives on the line for their values.

What’s missing here is an effort at determining what the Iranian dissenters want from the Obama administration. The fact that it’s not clear what the answer to that question is itself serves as a powerful indicator that the protest movement is first and foremost concerned about handling this on its own. As best I can tell from NIAC and from Twitter and from talking with Iranian human rights advocates in the United States, the dissenters want the Obama administration to refuse to recognize Ahmadinejad’s claims of victory; to express concern for the safety of the protesters; and then to get out of the way. The Obama administration can be fairly criticized for not saying enough on the second point, though if, as Michael Scherer believes, Obama’s going to say something at 5 p.m., maybe that will change. But it doesn’t follow from Obama’s muted discussion of the dissenters that he’s indifferent to their plight. From talking to administration officials, I am convinced that they are very concerned that American rhetorical support will immediately become a cudgel in the hands of Ahmadinejad. Would that outcome advance human rights?

It’s emotionally unsatisfying not to proclaim unequivocal support for the protesters. But the truer measure of support, as Trita Parsi told me, is to follow their lead. Moussavi, for instance, has not issued any statement about what he wants the international community to do. If the protesters begin calling for a more direct American response, then that really will have to compel the administration to reconsider its position. But until then, with so many lives at stake, the administration can’t afford to take a stance just because it makes Americans feel just and righteous.

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