President Obama has received considerable criticism because he has refrained from strongly endorsing the anti-regime street demonstrations in Iran. Much of that criticism has come from the same neoconservative geniuses, such as former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who brought us the Iraq debacle. My colleague Christopher Preble does an especially good job of showing why meddling, even verbally, in Iran’s internal political affairs would be a bad idea. Given America’s less-than-savory reputation with many Iranians ever since the CIA overthrew the country’s democratic government in 1953 and put the brutal, corrupt Shah back on the throne, a U.S. endorsement of the opposition would likely be the kiss of death.
The alleged election victory by hardline President Mahmoud Amadinejad was probably the result of fraud, and most Americans hope that the ongoing demonstrations ultimately oust the clerical regime. But if a revolution occurs, the Iranian people must do it for themselves. It would be both improper–and given the unfortunate history of U.S.-Iranian relations, counterproductive–for the U.S. government to meddle. So far, President Obama has struck the right cautious and balanced tone.
President Obama is certainly off to a fast start. The record during his first week, though, is mixed.
One good early action was his decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, shut down the secret CIA prisons in various overseas locations, and tighten the standards for interrogating terrorist suspects. Gitmo and everything associated with it will likely go down as one of the more shameful episodes in American history. Even though Bush administration officials repeatedly denied that the U.S. engaged in torture, the reality was otherwise. Cynical euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques” sounded like dialogue from characters in a George Orwell novel. Of course, we all want to minimize the danger of new terrorist attacks, but there are certain lines that a society must not cross if it wishes to remain a moral society. Torture is one of those bright red lines.
While President Obama’s decisions on that issue removed a stain on America’s honor, his proposed remedy for the ongoing economic recession embodies many of the worst ideas liberal Democrats have been peddling for decades. Advocating another $825 billion in spending when the federal government is already running a deficit that is likely to exceed $1 trillion this year constitutes fiscal folly. Even the underlying goal to jump start more consumer spending is flawed. Jim Rogers, one of world’s most successful investors over the past three decades put the matter very well: “The idea that you can solve a period of excessive borrowing and consumption with more borrowing and more consumption” is “ludicrous on its face.”
The ugly portion of the Obama administration’s first week was the confirmation of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. In her earlier confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she pledged that the administration’s foreign policy would be one of “smart power”–filching a term that I and other scholars have used for years. That wouldn’t be so bad if what she advocated was even remotely smart. But virtually everything she said was merely warmed over conventional wisdom–and usually the worst aspects of the conventional wisdom. Clinton emphasized the supposed need to strengthen NATO–that Cold War-era dinosaur of an alliance–and add new members, such as tiny Balkan states, Georgia, and Ukraine. The former are militarily useless (as is Georgia) and membership for Georgia and Ukraine would further damage the already tense relations between the U.S. and Russia. The rest of her testimony was equally bad. America must keep other useless, costly military commitments, such as the one to South Korea, somehow solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (like we haven’t been trying to do that for the past four decades), take a hard line with Iran (like we haven’t been doing that for the past three decades) and engage in more humanitarian interventions and nation-building missions. Those, apparently, we can accomplish with all of our spare money and troops. If there were such a requirement as truth in advertising for presidential appointees, Hillary’s foreign policy would have to be labeled “dumb power” not smart power. For an approach that is actually smart power, check here.
The Bush administration surprised everyone this week when it announced that William Burns, the number three official in the State Department, would meet with Iran’s top negotiator regarding the ongoing nuclear crisis. Yet barely two months earlier, in a speech to the Israeli Knesset, President Bush had criticized anyone who was willing to negotiate with “terrorists and radicals” as making the same naïve blunder as Western leaders who sought to appease Adolf Hitler. That comment was a jab at Barack Obama, who had previously suggested opening a dialogue with such countries as Iran and Syria.
There are two possible explanations for the administration’s change in strategy. One possibility is that the Bush foreign policy team has finally decided, with great reluctance, to enter into serious negotiations with Iran, just as it had earlier with regard to North Korea. When the nuclear crisis involving that country re-ignited in late 2002, the administration’s initial reaction was to refuse even to talk to Pyongyang. Only after months of intense pressure from China and Washington’s chief allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea, did U.S. officials relent and agree to meet with their North Korean counterparts. That paved the way for the ongoing six-party talks. Indeed, Washington’s policy changed so much, that over the past two years the United States and North Korea have even conducted several rounds of bilateral (albeit unofficial) negotiations.
It is possible that we are witnessing a similar evolution of policy toward Iran. If so, that creates at least some hope that the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program can be resolved, and that someday normal diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran will be restored.
But there is another, much more ominous, possibility. Rumors have been flying for several months that the administration is considering launching air strikes against Iran. The Israeli government seems to be considering the military option even more seriously, since it has recently conducted military exercises involving that scenario. If air strikes have become a live policy option, the Burns diplomatic mission could be Washington’s effort to give Tehran a final chance to capitulate before the bombs and missiles start flying. Indeed, if one were inclined to be cynical, the administration could be simply going through the motions to establish a record that would support the narrative that the United States had tried everything, even high-level diplomacy, to solve the crisis peacefully. That “evidence” would then be used to support the case that the only remaining option was military force to prevent the “crazy mullahs in Tehran” from acquiring nuclear weapons.
At this point, there is no way to tell which scenario is correct. The former seems more likely, but the latter cannot be ruled out. At the very least, one should be cautious with expressions of enthusiasm and relief about the Burns mission until the picture becomes clear.