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June 15, 2009

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One could argue that our interests and our values were diametrically opposed after the Supreme Court crowned George W as President - but they'd be wrong. Our value of having laws govern the results, rather than vice-versa, were also in our long term interests.


The Iranian election, however, presents no such conflict. If we value democracy, and want to do everything we can to promote it, we should refrain from making loud statements in support of the dissidents in Iran. This is also in our best interests.

Amazing post, Hil. Perfectly encapsulates what I clumsily tried to convey in my own post.

In this case, if coming out strongly in favor of the protesters would strengthen Ahmedinejad's hand, then we should absolutely not do it, however strongly we might be tempted.


This is not about us, and we should not make it about us.

I agree 100%. It's human nature to view events through a myopic, self-centered lens, but doing so in international affairs all-too-often ill serves our interests. "American puppet" has been for decades just about the most explosive charge one can level against a political opponent in Iran, and despite Obama's more conciliatory rhetoric that is still the case - we don't want to lend any credibility whatsoever to hardliners leveling it at reformists by too baldly expressing support for the latter. This is a possible inflection point - a chance to put our money where our mouth is when it comes to promoting democracy and self-determination in the Middle East - but it needs to be done delicately, in a way that elucidates American ideals without reminding people of the sordid history of anti-democratic American interventionism in the region. So far I think Obama has been about pitch-perfect - expressing concern for human rights and the integrity of the democratic process and pledging to continue engagement with the next duly elected government of Iran without committing to a preference about who that might be.

Let's let this shake out - we should get involved if and only if Iranian dissidents call for outside help, and even then it might be wiser to let some other country less reviled in Iran take the lead.

Those who insist on evaluating everything based on how it impacts America are all equally misguided. Not to mention wrong. It doesn't matter whether their view of what is good for America involves installing a dictator who will support American policy goals, or if it involves shouting out support for those who wish to remove such a dictator. In short, whether from the left or the right, if the argument is based on America rather than on the country in question, then it is almost sure to end up supporting all the wrong actions.

But then, neither the left nor the right have ever been much on humility, which is what it takes to actually put in the effort to understand other people and their actual situation and desires.

Hilzoy: Quite possibly I’m misreading you, but I can’t reconcile “our failure to stick up for the democracy in Lebanon” on the one hand with your Iran position OTOH.

Note that I don’t know the right thing to do here, so I have no disagreement with the administrations approach thus far.

I don’t believe Ackerman is entirely correct here though: “As best I can tell from NIAC and from Twitter and from talking with Iranian human-rights advocates in the U.S., the dissenters want the Obama administration to refuse to recognize the Ahmadinejad's claims of victory; to express concern for the safety of the protesters; and then to get out of the way.”

At least not from Twitter. Now “the dissenters” or “the protesters” are obviously not a monolithic group. But following Twitterfall #iranelection for several days now, I have seen thousands of tweets from protesters saying essentially “Where is Obama? Why doesn’t he support us? Why doesn’t he speak out?”

I think one of the (many) things the Bush administration totally missed in its push for externally imposed democracy is how important self-determination is to democracy. In some ways the words are synonyms. I think that the act of winning power from whatever elite/king/dictator is a crucial foundation of common experience and purpose for a stable and successful democracy.

As a result, I think that the US needs to let this be an _Iranian_ event, not something it directs. Of course we can speak out against the use of violence, etc, but I am very glad to see Obama's low key approach.

Wouldn't it be ironic if Iran became the stable beacon of democracy in the Middle East?

A girl can dream.

I can’t reconcile “our failure to stick up for the democracy in Lebanon” on the one hand with your Iran position OTOH.

Unless Hilzoy is calling for Israel to attack Iran, I don't think her two positions are at all inconsistent.

Abby: I think that the act of winning power from whatever elite/king/dictator is a crucial foundation of common experience and purpose for a stable and successful democracy.

I agree - naturally: but it has been a truism in American foreign policy for a *lot* longer than Bush, that "stable and successful democracy" is not as good for America as a king or a dictator that is reliably loyal to US interests in his region.

Part of realism is showing that you have a clear grasp of reality -- that you know the difference between decency and barbarism when both are on display for the whole world to see.

If George Packer believes this, I hope he's shouting equally loudly about the US' own need to distinguish between the decency of not torturing and the barbarism of torturing. Or is he like too many Americans and only concerned about other countries' barbarism?

Very well said, Hilzoy. The contrast between statements of two leading Republicans on the subject is noteworthy. Lugar has praised Obama's restraint in recognizing that, as you simply stated, This is not about us. Meanwhile, McCain (aka Mr. Hothead) is urging Obama to "lead" more strongly.

Almost daily, I give thanks that last November we elected a 47-year-old grownup rather than a 72-year-old child.

I feel OCSteve's cognitive dissonance as well, and I don't really understand rea's point - Israel's attack on Lebanon was not about democracy in Lebanon, surely??

I have to admit I can't see any world in which things would be worse because Obama endorsed the right to vote and the right to not get shot by your own government for protesting.

Even George Bush managed to publicly endorse the Lebanese protestors. Are you suggesting that we have found Obama's second point of difference with Bush: softer on autocracies?

I feel OCSteve's cognitive dissonance as well, and I don't really understand rea's point - Israel's attack on Lebanon was not about democracy in Lebanon, surely??

I have to admit I can't see any world in which things would be worse because Obama endorsed the right to vote and the right to not get shot by your own government for protesting.

Even George Bush managed to publicly endorse the Lebanese protestors. Are you suggesting that we have found Obama's second point of difference with Bush: softer on autocracies?

Sorry, it told me it hadn't posted!!

OCSteve: My basic view is that we should support democracy when we can do so by legitimate means. In the case of Lebanon, I thought, and said at the time, that after maybe the second day of Israeli bombing, when it had become clear that they were not going to stop, we should have moved heaven and earth to stop them; and that this would have been in Israel's interests, in ours, and of course in Lebanon's. And one reason to do that (not the only one) was that Lebanon had a democratically elected government -- imperfect, but real -- that was being flattened. Israel's bombing may not have been about democracy, but it absolutely had effects on Lebanon's democracy.

In this case, I truly think that the most supportive thing we can do is keep out of the way. If I'm right -- and of course there's lots of room for me not to be -- then ringing endorsements will be harmful, not helpful. ("Ringing endorsements" does not cover calls for people's human rights to be respected, expressions of concerns about violence, etc.)

In both cases, I think my view is: do what would help, insofar as you can do so by legitimate means.

Patrick, given the past results of US interference in Iran, self-interest if not humility should cause US to speak very softly.

Hilzoy has it exactly right, and this Canadian strongly shares the sentiment of MandyW: "Almost daily, I give thanks that last November we elected a 47-year-old grownup rather than a 72-year-old child."

Following the line of thought that only Nixon could recognize China, may the US not be better of with Ahmedinejad to negotiate with? As I understand it, current US thought is that Iran wants nuclear weapons (regardless of what they say). This is a position held by most Iranians, and one that Mousavi would find impossible to negotiate away. Just something else to think about.

OCSteve wrote: "Hilzoy: Quite possibly I’m misreading you, but I can’t reconcile “our failure to stick up for the democracy in Lebanon” on the one hand with your Iran position OTOH."

I can't speak for Hilzoy, but the situations would appear to be very different due to our history with Iran, going back to the 1953 coup we engineered. Simply put, for many Iranians, we are not benign actors, let alone heroes, so it's foolish to think action on our part would do anything but damage the opposition.

OCSteve wrote: "I have seen thousands of tweets from protesters saying essentially “Where is Obama? Why doesn’t he support us? Why doesn’t he speak out?”"

How do you know they're protesters and not Ahmedinejad supporters trying to bait the US into stepping into it?

George Packer's politics are a kind of moral preening in which it's always about him. When challenged about the actual effects of his support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, his defense was to point to his noble intentions.

What Nell said. A slightly chastened, somewhat humbler imperialist is an imperialist nonetheless.

Packer's whole project seems to be saving messianic American exceptionalism from the ravages inflicted upon it by Bush & Cheney--i.e., the people who actually put it into practice.

How do you know they're protesters and not Ahmedinejad supporters trying to bait the US into stepping into it?

They'd have to pretty much all be false personae created just now for the occasion: Iran's espionage agencies are good, but I refuse to believe they have the foresight to create and maintain a presence in hundreds of fake accounts on the off-chance that they might want to mislead the U.S. with a fake popular insurrection some day. But if hundreds of new Twitter accounts were created in Iran in the middle of riots, all calling for help from the U.S., I suspect someone would have noticed.

O.C. Steve, even if some Iranians disagree, I think overt U.S. approval would sink Moussavi.

"I can't speak for Hilzoy, but the situations would appear to be very different due to our history with Iran, going back to the 1953 coup we engineered. Simply put, for many Iranians, we are not benign actors, let alone heroes, so it's foolish to think action on our part would do anything but damage the opposition."

Wait, we're talking about the Lebanon that the U.S invaded with Marine in 1958 to suppress an Arab rebellion, right? The same Lebanon that the U.S. supported the Israeli invasion of in 1982? The same Lebanon that the U.S. vetoed a slew of UN resolutions about condeming that Israeli invasion, and calling for Israeli withdrawal? During and after which Israel's bombardment killed about 12,000 Lebanese and Palestinians? The Lebanon where the U.S. brokered a peace agreement after the invasion, with "guarantees of safety" for the disarmed Palestinian population, with U.S. troops landed, the result of which was Christian Phalangists massacreing thousands of Palestinians with the tacit indifference, at best, of the Israeli military? The Lebanon in which Israel then invaded Beirut, after Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, after which Phalangists massacred yet another couple of thousands of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, while the Israelis looked on? The Lebanon where President Reagan than guaranteed that U.S. troops would remain to keep the peace? The Lebanon where by summer of 1983, we were launching major air strikes, and pounding the hills with 2,700-pound shells from the battleship New Jersey? The Lebanon we subsequently ran like screaming children from, after a suicide bomber blew up our Marine barracks, killing killing 241 servicemen? The Lebanon where our embassy was blown up again in September 1984?

That's the Lebanon where we don't have much history to cause us to be resented, unlike in Iran?

That Lebanon?

The President's proper role in this is to stuff a handkerchief in his mouth to keep himself from saying what the very stones cry out. Not an easy role. He has done a good job of it so far. How long he can keep it up remains to be seen.

Imagine people in Johannesburg or Tienanmen Square holding up pictures of the Iranians, or signs that say "Where's Irans Vote?"

Imagine Iranians seeing this.

Obama can help, by saying the right things.

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