Belmont Club

The politics of crisis

Two editorials, one in the NY Daily News and other in the Telegraph underscore the political problem facing President Obama with regard to Iran, but in different ways.

Charles Krauthammer, writing in the NY Daily News, is contemptuous of President Obama’s reaction so far. He writes:

Millions of Iranians take to the streets to defy a theocratic dictatorship that, among its other finer qualities, is a self-declared enemy of America and the tolerance and liberties it represents. The demonstrators are fighting on their own, but they await just a word that America is on their side. And what do they hear from the president of the United States? Silence. Then, worse. Three days in, the president makes clear his policy: continued “dialogue” with their clerical masters.

Dialogue with a regime that is breaking heads, shooting demonstrators, expelling journalists, arresting activists. Engagement with — which inevitably confers legitimacy upon — leaders elected in a process that begins as a sham (only four handpicked candidates permitted out of 476) and ends in overt rigging.

Then, after treating this popular revolution as an inconvenience to the real business of Obama-Khamenei negotiations, the president speaks favorably of “some initial reaction from the Supreme Leader that indicates he understands the Iranian people have deep concerns about the election.”

That’s not nearly as bad as Gerald Warner’s piece in the Telegraph. Warner’s article is entitled, “President Pantywaist latest: Iran unclenches its fist – to slap Barack Obama’s face” and you can’t get any more obvious about contempt than that. Warner’s says,

For America and the rest of the world, Iranian nuclear development is the supreme consideration. How many of those superficially Americanised young Iranians, so active on Twitter, does Obama think want to see their country stripped of the prestige of being a potential nuclear power, especially when Pakistan is already in the club?

This is a lose/lose situation for Obama. He is as flaky on Iran as on everything else. In 2004 he favoured “surgical” missile strikes against Iran. In 2007 he did not rule out force, but preferred “aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions” – but that was for the ears of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Since he moved address from Chicago to Washington, his stance has become more nuanced (ie he hasn’t a clue what to do).

He is trying to steer a course between appeasement and rhetoric about the Iranian “threat”, while knowing he may eventually have to knuckle down and accept a nuclear Islamic republic, since Barack doesn’t do war. If the Israelis do the job for him, that will be ten times more provocative in Middle Eastern terms. Look forward to change you’d better believe in.

But there are differences to the two editorials. Krauthammer argues that America is losing an opportunity to ride an anti-authoritarian wave which first showed itself in Hezbollah’s defeat in the Lebanese elections and is now rising to a crest in Iran. Warner on the other hand, is implying that events may not be so benign. That far from a wave of democracy we are simply seeing a wave of unknown nature. But, by imitating a deer caught in the headlights, instead of acting the Leader of the Free World, President Obama is passively letting events sweep him along.

The clearest indication of the Obama lag came when Congress approved a resolution “in support of Iranian dissidents” by a vote of 405-1. Only Rep. Ron Paul voted against. Two Democrats, Ellision and Loebsack, voted “present”. Congress is a weather vane that is forever ready to feign principle when the polls suggest it. That may say something about Congress, but it also says something about the polls.

“The resolution was approved in a 405-1 vote, with two members voting present. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) was the only lawmaker opposed to the resolution. Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and David Loebsack (D-Iowa) voted present. “This resolution is not about American interests,” said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. “It is about American values that I believe are universal.”

Benjamin Sarlin at the Daily Beast on the other hand, carries an interview from an Iranian ‘reformist’ cleric that doing nothing in Iran for the present is the right course of action. “Critics have urged Obama to “go green,” to side with Iranian protesters more vocally. But in an exclusive interview, one of Iran’s most high-profile opposition clerics, Mohsen Kadivar, tells The Daily Beast that the reformers don’t want any help. He also says the protests are about the presidential election, not about overthrowing the Ayatollah.”

In an interview with The Daily Beast after a rally and prayer session by the United Nations in solidarity with Iran’s protesters, Kadivar said that the opposition movement was entirely self-sufficient and in need of no support from foreign leaders. “What Obama has done so far is about perfect,” Kadivar, garbed in his traditional cleric’s robes, said. “We don’t need any special support from you. The green movement for democracy and liberty Iran is independent and we don’t need anything from the foreigners. We should get democracy ourselves.”

Kadivar is one of Iran’s top human rights activists, renowned for his religiously grounded arguments in favor of expanded civil liberties and democracy. Moments before the interview, he had delivered a sermon in Farsi to a green-clad crowd of a couple dozen protesters, in which he spoke directly to Iran’s ruling party, asking why they did not respect the voice of their own people, particularly by closing down Internet and phone communications.

There is almost certainly a division on the ground in Iran about the way to go forward. My own memories of the EDSA Revolution and the time leading up to are thronged with recollections of argument and counterargument. There were those who believed [and I was one of them] that gathering millions around the rebel military camp was simply giving Marcos a bigger artillery target. I remember walking a very long circuit through the north of EDSA looking for signs of artillery units at the same time some people I knew scrambled over the fence into Enrile’s beseiged camp to take up M-14s they had never fired in their lives in hastily dug foxholes. I was almost right about the arty strike.  Today we know from historical sources that: “helicopters, manned by the 15th Air Force Strike Wings, led by Colonel Antonio Sotelo, were ordered to head to Camp Crame to neutralize it. Secretly, the squadron had already defected and instead of attacking Camp Crame, landed in it, with the crowds cheering and hugging the soldiers who came out. The presence of the helicopters boosted the morale of Enrile and Ramos who had been continually encouraging their fellow soldiers to join the opposition. ” Events were occuring very rapidly in parallel. The mood twitched from hour to hour. Is Kadivar right? Who knows?

My own guess is that President Obama is trapped by two things. The first is the momentum of his own miscalculations. He has crafted an entire strategy for the Middle East and now the carpet (and a Persian one) has been pulled from under his feet. The second is an implicit intelligence and bureaucratic failure. Presidents cannot choose from an unlimited number of action options. They can only select from what is called an “organizational repertoire”. It is like a piano. You can only press the keys on the keyboard. If the key is missing, then no can play. In this case, my guess is that Obama has no worked-up options for this rapidly changing case and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has now been shown what her true capacity is in life.

Things aren’t moving according to the script for the President. And this time, the media can’t write it for him.

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