Obama in a 'Rundown' on Iran
But must he do this while seeming to abandon the demonstrators in the streets of Tehran?
The aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 by the Chinese government and the response by the administration of George H.W. Bush to the uprising is instructive. Then, as now, Congress and many conservatives wanted the president to speak out more forcefully for the demonstrators and condemn the government responsible for the crackdown more vigorously.
Interestingly, the response of Bush to the crackdown in Tiananmen Square sounds an awful lot like Obama's measured tones in talking about Tehran:
Bush declared that he deeply deplored "the decision to use force against peaceful demonstrators and the consequent loss of life." He omitted, however, any direct criticism of individual Chinese leaders. Secretary of State James Baker suggested "it would appear that there maybe was some violence on both sides" and emphasized that the U.S. did not want to interfere in the internal political affairs of China.
Later, as congressional pressure built, Bush's rhetoric and actions changed slightly. Mild sanctions were imposed but the administration hastened to assure the Chinese government that the fundamental relationship would continue to progress.
Barack Obama has also decided not to name names; a desire not to interfere in the internal affairs of another country was paramount in his response. It remains to be seen whether his rhetoric will escalate along with the violence but it is equally clear he wants to continue his so far futile outreach to the Iranian government.
Both administrations represent a "realist" point of view where ethical considerations are set aside in favor of doing what is best for the long-term interests of the United States. It is hard to find fault with this position, because the presidency is an office where the occupant is keenly aware of taking actions that may affect a successor.
It is being argued that it is times like this when realpolitik must take a back seat to the moral choice of coming down firmly on the side of the demonstrators while lashing out at the Iranian thugs who ordered the crackdown and probably stole the election.
Then what? This is the question faced by both Bush #41 and Obama, their hearts undoubtedly with the protestors. The desire to speak in less than measured language to the brutal governments suppressing the legitimate aspirations of their populations was very tempting. For George Bush, the decision was made to swallow any harsh criticism of the Chinese government in favor of some token wrist slapping and almost worthless sanctions. One could argue that this policy eventually paid dividends in that our strategic relationship with China is perhaps the most important part of our foreign policy today.
Barack Obama has decided that it is more prudent to try and talk with the Iranians, attempting to get them to forgo a nuclear enrichment program instead of bombing that program out of existence. We may see the folly of that policy and determine that the president's wrong-headed approach is actually more of a danger to our interests than trying to destroy the Iranian nuclear shop. But if that is the goal of the president's Iran policy -- engagement -- he is saying as much as he can, as forcefully as he can, in that given context.
It won't be enough for many -- especially those who do not have the responsibility for speaking for the country in times of crisis. And the president's critics may yet be proven correct, given what we know of the nature of the Iranian regime and their steadfast refusal to give up their potential bomb-making nuclear program.
But when the stakes are this high -- not just for the Iranian demonstrators but for the U.S., the Israelis, the region, and the world -- I am willing to cut the president a little slack and recognize that while we all want him to say what is in our hearts about freedom and justice, his response so far has been about as good as we can expect.