When Barack Obama finally piped up last year about the massive protests following the rigged June 12 presidential election in Iran, he quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” An eloquent line, but, as Obama used it, grossly misplaced.
King, when he talked about an arc of history, was not sitting around waiting for that arc to bend. He was fully committed to a great struggle for equality, and urging his followers to keep going. Obama, when he brought up the long arc, was at pains to tell the world he had no interest in getting involved with the protesters who were dying in the streets of Iran. He described their calls for freedom, and the brutal response of the Iranian regime, as “not something that has to do with the outside world.” Obama contented himself with “bearing witness” — or at least tuning in on TV — while he waited for the demonstrations to simmer down, so he could resume extending his hand to the mullahs. That was the context in which he brought up “the arc of the moral universe,” assuring us all that he and the “international community” believed the arc would bend “toward justice.”
It was a strange choice of phrase from the president who rode to office on slogans not about any long arcs of anything, but “this is our moment,” “now is our time.” Apparently that was fine for things like 2,000 pages of ObamaCare legislation. But in Obama’s worldview, when Iranians rose up to challenge the Tehran regime that has bedeviled America since the days of Jimmy Carter, it was not their moment, and not their time.
And now, here we are, a year after the “re-election” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sparked those demonstrations calling for justice. Whatever the final shape of history’s arc, right now it is bending toward an Iranian nuclear bomb, and a rising Iranian-centered axis of trouble that extends not only to Syria, Venezuela and North Korea, but to Turkey and Brazil (with China and Russia arranging for their cut of the action). And what of the Iranian demonstrators who braved the beatings and bullets in the streets? After a year of terror, arrests and executions, there were still reports of sporadic demonstrations on Saturday, here and there in Iran. Try to imagine how much courage that must take. But the huge protests of last year have been smothered, thwarted, silenced. Obama talks about the increasing “isolation” of Iran’s regime, but — as I argue in a column on Iran’s Arc of Injustice — those who are genuinely suffering from isolation are not Iran’s rulers, but Iran’s dissidents.
And, from the White House, here it comes again: the arc of history, this time not from the lips of Obama himself, but from one of his “human rights advisors,” reading a presidential statement (which may explain why either the AFP or the advisor bungled the phrase, and referred this time not to the “arc” but to the “arch” of history).
Here’s the quote, from the AFP story: “The courage of the Iranian people stands as an example to us and it challenges us to continue our efforts to bend the arch of history in the direction of justice.”
Really? Continue what efforts, exactly? What does that sentence even mean? Iranians were not protesting in order to set an example for the White House. What they needed from Obama was the courage and will to ensure that America would stand as an example to the world — of active and committed support to their calls for freedom. What they got can be summed up by the moment in which America, without a peep of protest, nodded along with the “election” by acclamation of Iran’s government to a seat on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
The “bearing witness” and “arc” references have become a refrain. In December, when the Iranian government cracked down violently on mass protests, Obama put out a statement promising: “We will continue to bear witness.” This past March, while wishing all and sundry a Happy Nowruz, Obama wanted the Iranian people to know that the U.S. believes in “an international order that bends the arc of history in the direction of justice.” (That would be the same international order in which 155 of the U.N.’s 192 member states voted last month to give Libya a seat on the UN Human Rights Council?)
Obama has also brandished the arc in other contexts, including his remarks with Chinese President Hu Jintao last July, when it was “the arc of history that led to a wall coming down in Berlin” (gee, some of us thought it wasn’t an “arc,” but a combination of Ronald Reagan standing up to the Soviets, and Germans wielding sledgehammers).
Anyway, whether it is an arc or an arch that Obama had in mind when his human rights advisor spoke up this week, it’s time to give it a rest. It’s not the long arc/arch of history that protects and engenders freedom — it is the hard work, wisdom and courage of individuals, of which there has been precious little on display in the Oval Office this past year. Enough with the arc, already.