I want to offer a counterpoint to Clark’s latest post, in which he argued that the president’s response to the dramatic events unfolding in Iran have “sharpened the growing impression that he is not a man of strength.”
Scott Wilson, in this morning’s Washington Post, has a front page story describing the apparent partisan divide in approval of President Obama’s approach. He quotes Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation, who says “It’s almost as if the president lacks confidence in the greatness of his own nation. He seems unwilling to aggressively project American global power, as if it were something to be ashamed of,” and follows it with a senior administration official’s retort: “We’re trying to promote a foreign policy that advances our interests, not that makes us feel good about ourselves.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, I am more drawn to the latter of these two perspectives. I don’t see any reason to think President Obama lacks confidence in the greatness of our nation; and as a speechwriter, it’s easy to point to examples in which he uses his public communications at home to laud our nation’s strength, greatness, and goodness — repeatedly and forcefully. But what would be the foreign policy value of trumpeting those ideals in Iran? Do we think the Iranian people have any doubts about America’s position on freedom? Even in the absence of more overt U.S. allegiance with the protesters, the Iranian authorities are trying to blame the U.S. for fomenting the demonstrations.
As Henry Kissinger noted on Fox News, “Anything that the United States says that puts us totally behind one of the contenders, behind Moussavi, would be a handicap for that person.” And as Trita Parsi, president and cofounder of the National Iranian American Council recently wrote in the Christian Science Monitor,
“Accusing President Obama of weakness may generate some headlines, but it misses the point. A closer look reveals that the president’s approach has paved the way for the current stand-off in Iran and that he is supported by those seeking their rights in Iran.
Many have argued that the president shouldn’t side with any particular faction in Iran since doing so could backfire. Having the US on your side is not necessarily a good thing in Iran. Washington neither wants to make itself the issue in Iran, nor is it eager to help Mr. Ahmadinejad stage a comeback.
But two more salient points have been lost in the American debate. First, who makes the decision to help – the US, or the people America wishes to help?
Some neoconservatives and Republican lawmakers have called on Mr. Obama to side with Mir Hossein Mousavi, the centrist presidential candidate who ran on a reformist ticket. The recommendation was done, it appears, without consulting Mr. Mousavi to see if he believes that Obama’s endorsement is needed or helpful. This kind of reckless arrogance partly explains why political groups in Iran view America’s explicit support as a source of delegitimization.”
I think we’ve learned in recent history the limits of trying to “aggressively project American global power.” What’s happening in the streets of Tehran right now isn’t about us — it’s about the people of Iran. And, so far at least, I haven’t heard them calling for a greater public show of support from the U.S. president. But I have seen polls of Iranian public opinion, in which three-quarters support closer relations with the United States, and strongly support more democracy for their country, but while 67 percent say the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq would improve Iranian opinion of the U.S., 59 percent say the U.S. working to spread democracy inside Iran would not.
Another recent poll, this one of the Arab world, asked the question, “What two steps by the United States would improve your views of the U.S. the most?” Fifty-one percent said withdrawal from Iraq. Seven percent said pushing to spread democracy.
My point is not that we should not be in favor of democracy in Iran or in the Middle East more broadly. But I believe President Obama’s approach is the right one, at least for now.