Obama Takes the Next Step on Iran
President Obama’s tough words on Iran should not have been as surprising as they were to some of his critics, because they reflect a steady trajectory in his rhetoric as the situation unfolded.
Yes, Obama was cautious in his initial rhetoric. Personally, I’d rather have a president be careful than reckless. But the brutality of the Iranian regime’s crackdown demanded that he speak out forcefully, and he did. “The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings and the imprisonments of the last few days,” he said today at his news conference. There was no ambivalence there.
He did go out of his way to declare that the United States “respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” underscoring his point by using the country’s official name, and adding that the U.S. is “not interfering with Iran’s affairs.”
But he quickly shifted back to his moral point that “we must also bear witness to the courage and the dignity of the Iranian people and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore the violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place.”
Having argued earlier this week that those of us who think of ourselves as progressives and liberals cannot pretend to be indifferent to the outcome of the struggle in Iran, I am happy that Obama took this step. “The bottom line of American policy,” I argued, “must be that no matter how committed we are to negotiation, we are also committed democrats.” That is now clear.
Before Obama spoke, I had intended this post primarily as a reply to Ed Morrissey, a conservative blogger with whom I enjoy disagreeing and even, occasionally, agreeing. Morrissey took me to task for that column, summarizing his point with the headline: “Dionne: Incoherence Works.”
Needless to say, I don’t think that either my argument or Obama’s policy were incoherent, and I especially dispute Ed’s way of characterizing Obama’s position. He wrote:
The idea that keeping quiet while Iranian protestors try to free their nation will convince Khamenei to not only sit down with us openly but give up the nuclear weapons they have spent years developing is beyond naive, especially considering the history of the regime. It crosses over into stupidity.
I don’t understand why Ed believes that the point of Obama’s caution was to coddle Khamenei into negotiating with us and giving up his weapons. That crosses over into -- well, I like Ed, so let’s just say rhetorical overkill.
I spoke with an administration official today after Obama’s news conference, and he offered a summary of the thinking behind the administration’s progression. “From Day One,” he said, “it was clear that the biggest mistake we could have made was to make ourselves the story and to create false excuses on the part of the Iranian government to blame us for events in Iran when, in fact, those events were the result of the government’s actions and a large number of people seeking justice after the elections.”
This official added: “At the same time, we wanted to react appropriately to events as they developed, and when the violence and repression got worse, the language got tougher.”
Of course there were arguments inside the government about how much to say, what options we should keep open, and how much these events will alter our policy in the long-term. But clearly there was deliberate movement in what I, at least, see as the right direction.
The bottom line: Was anything lost because Obama took his time before making his strong statement on Saturday and his even stronger declaration today? I don’t think so. But whether you agree with that or not, I don’t think that you can characterize the administration’s approach as “incoherent.”
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