That necessitates they not rock the boat — and avoid extending even rhetorical support to the Iranian demonstrators. It is a familiar trend. Obama and his supporters, after all, were the ones who called for immediate withdrawal from Iraq (before victory was apparent) despite the risk of regional genocide. Once in office Obama has been content to drop human rights (whether in China or Venezuela) from the agenda, literally embrace Hugo Chavez, and relax restrictions on Cuba with no preconditions. So perhaps we should not be surprised. These are not people dedicated to human rights, democracy, or free and fair elections — or, for that matter, placing any demand on authoritarian states regarding their treatment of their citizens.
This tactic does, of course, have two major drawbacks. First, it becomes morally repugnant at some level. Does Obama continue to coo about the “Islamic Republic of Iran”? At what time do we become facilitators of a regime which badly needs legitimacy in order to maintain its iron grip? But for those who like “realism” the central defect is that this sort of “engagement at all costs” is wildly unrealistic. After the display of the last few days who thinks these people will give up nuclear ambitions? Who thinks a regime of this type is simply waiting to join the family of nations? It should be apparent that a regime which would declare the election to be free and fair is precisely the sort to string us along in fruitless negotiations and dissemble about its current behavior and future aspirations.
Even Henry Kissinger, the quintessential architect of realpolitik, repeatedly argued that American foreign policy must combine both hard-headed realism and adherence to our deepest moral aspirations (e.g., democracy, human rights). Without the latter our ability to influence, persuade, and rally world opinion fades. And by jettisoning our moral aspirations an administration risks losing the support and affection of American voters. Indeed those Americans who expected something more from their president (who won, you may recall, by tapping into the idealism of many formerly jaded or indifferent new voters) may recoil in horror as they realize there is nothing more important to the Obama administration — not freedom, not democracy, not justice, not fidelity to allies — than “getting a deal.”
In the end, we won’t have that either, in large part, because the regime we are attempting to deal with has figured out that it can act with impunity. And if they have figured it out in Iran, what must they think in Syria, Moscow, China, and North Korea?