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Obama Withdraws the Open Hand

President Obama's I'll-talk-to-anyone approach to international diplomacy does, it turns out, have exceptions. One is for leaders who are in the middle of brutally repressing anti-government protesters.

Most of the talk about yesterday's press conference today is either about Obama's increasingly harsh criticism of the Iranian crackdown or about the hysterical response by some traditional-media journalists to Obama calling on a blogger bearing a question from an actual Iranian.

But the bigger news, it seems to me, is how Obama has now imposed some conditions on what used to be an unconditional offer to talk to Iran's leaders. Here's how Obama put it -- ever so diplomatically:

We are going to monitor and see how this plays itself out before we make any judgments about how we proceed. But to reiterate, there is a path available to Iran in which their sovereignty is respected, their traditions, their culture, their faith is respected, but one in which they are part of a larger community that has responsibilities and operates according to norms and international rules that are universal.

We don't know how they're going to respond yet, and that's what we're waiting to see.

Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger note in their New York Times story that administration officials told them that

more so now than even a few days ago... the prospects for any dialogue with Iran over its nuclear program appear all but dead for the immediate future, though they held out hope that Iran, assuming it has a stable government, could respond to Mr. Obama’s overtures later in the year.

Cooper and Sanger write:

While Mr. Obama did not rule out the possibility of engaging with Iran over the nuclear issue, administration officials and European diplomats say that the door to talks has all but closed, at least for now.

"I think that under these circumstances, no one is going to be able to pursue anything because there is nothing to pursue," said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, who has been consulting with White House officials "on a daily basis," he said, about the unfolding situation in Iran.

Glenn Kessler explains, well into his Washington Post story:

As newly described by the president, engagement is not an initiative from the United States but "a path available to Iran" that is linked to "how they handle the dissent within their own country." So far, as the president noted, "what we've seen . . . is not encouraging in terms of the path that this regime may choose to take."

This is not to say that Obama isn't keeping his eye on the prize. Kessler writes:

Since the election crisis began, the president has sought to preserve his options for future dealings with the government, assuming it survives. While his rhetorical message has sharpened, he has not called the June 12 election a fraud, refused to deal with the announced winner, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or spelled out sanctions Iran might face if it continues its crackdown on protesters. Obama has also been careful to avoid the appearance of meddling, even to the point of sidestepping all questions on Ahmadinejad's legitimacy.

Or, as Anne Gearan explains for the Associated Press:

Behind President Barack Obama's toughened but modulated response to the Iranian election crisis is a calculation that when the dust settles, the United States will still face an unpredictable adversary that gets closer every day to producing nuclear weapons....

"My position coming into this office has been that the United States has core national security interests in making sure that Iran doesn't possess a nuclear weapon and it stops exporting terrorism outside of its borders," Obama told reporters Tuesday.

Gearan points out that Obama's attempt "not to poison chances for negotiations over those threats" has given "Republican critics room to call him timid." But as Obama pointed out so effectively pointed out yesterday, political sniping is not his most urgent priority.

Meanwhile, Obama's decision to call on Nico Pitney, a Huffington Post editor who has been monitoring and reporting on the crackdown in Iran as it plays out on the Internet, is giving some MSM reporters the vapors. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank was besides himself, complaining bitterly of "prepackaged entertainment" and "stagecraft" and "planted" questions. Similarly, The Post's Howard Kurtz calls it "the strangest bit of orchestration I can recall at one of these events."

But while it's true that White House press aides reached out to Pitney and asked him to bring a question proposed by an Iranian, they didn't know what the question would be.

If the White House had solicited a particular question -- or even knew what a question would be ahead of time -- that would be an abuse of the forum. So would it be if the president called on someone he knew would ask softballs. (Think Jeff Gannon.)

But when Pitney was called on, it turned out the question he chose was a tough one, about how Obama would determine whether the election results were legitimate. It was "far and away the best question" of the day, according to the Guardian's Michael Tomasky. Here is Pitney explaining how it came about.

And here's how Ari Melber puts it, for the Nation:

By injecting a citizen question into a live presidential press conference, Pitney cracked the Beltway boundaries on who gets to interrogate the President....

[M]any Washington reporters routinely, secretly grant the White House blind quotes and restrictive ground rules in exchange for access. By contrast, Pitney transparently told readers about his dealings with the White House, in real time, on his blog. The public would be better served if all media outlets took that tack, publishing any arrangements, restrictions or ground rules along with every article or interview.

By Dan Froomkin  |  June 24, 2009; 1:20 PM ET
 
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Comments

The current Iranian regime--Ahmadinejad is just a puppet, and the mullahs are really in charge--is thoroughly hostile to the US. The question with Iran isn't simply, are we willing to talk. It is, what leverage do we have? Friedman argues that our leverage must be economic, and he's correct. But I don't see our national consumption going down by much. I doubt even Obama could sell a dollar-a-gallon gas tax (good as it would be). As long as Iran is making a profit by selling oil, they can afford to disregard what we say, in any venue.

That said, I applaud Obama's judicious approach to what looks like the beginning of a revolution. I hope that it is a revolution, and that the Iranian people carry it on to overthrow the theocrats. How deliciously ironic, if Obama will have inspired, with nothing but his example and a single speech, a spontaneous movement toward mideastern democracy, in a way that the Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush couldn't through six years of war.

I think it's even more amazing that the Iranian women seem to be taking the lead. Though I can't say I'm surprised: they have the most to gain from a free, open society.

Posted by: whizbang9a | June 24, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Does Howard Kurtz really think Obama's calling on a known blogger was stranger than the Bush White House's secret arrangement for softball questions from Jeff Gannon? Oh, yeah - I forgot - Obama isn't a Republican, so anything he does is either "timid" or "partisan." (or timidly partisan?)

Posted by: Common_Sense_Not_Common | June 24, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

According to a financial bulletin I subscribe to, "Iran is suffering from its own version of Peak Oil. Iranian net exports of oil are falling. Iran’s oil infrastructure is aging. According to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the trend is that Iran will be exporting ZERO oil by 2014, which is a mere five years from now. That means almost no serious money will be coming in for the Iranian leadership and government."
If this does occur, the current regime will have no money to buy off the poorer elements in society, let alone the middle class. Once that happens, all bets are off

Posted by: oschneider1 | June 24, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

I thought Froomkin got fired...

Posted by: billy8 | June 24, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

I read Milbanks piece and he didn't seem beside himself or bitter; largely because I don't think he gives a rats butt about it beyond it being something to make light of. And I think he was well aware of the Jeff Gannon issue because I think it was what he saw as hypocrisy for the Dems to get all knickered up over Gannon but give the Pitney thing a pass.

Posted by: ronjaboy | June 24, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

What really has Milbank's panties in a twist:

Nico Pitney asked a serious question at a White House Presser. Beyond the Pale.

Posted by: Broken1 | June 24, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, there's certainly some choreography in these events. Since there's so little time, and no follow-ups, every question is precious. If Obama's team did prearrange the question from Huffington, at least it was a legit question.

I'm sorry no one called on asked about the lack of transparency. I'd like to see Obama sweat about that in public a bit.

Posted by: whizbang9a | June 24, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Here the politicos and MSM go, suggesting we do more saber rattling at Iran, presumably because it has been so successful in the past. They love it when we meddle, increasing hostility all around the Middle East and especially toward our country. Why would we do that? I find it so interesting that now we at last have a sensible man in the White House, so many keep second guessing him like mad. It seems like they haven't yet realized that Obama is smarter than they are, has a bigger view and a more coherent plan. I don't know what he'll do or what the results will be, but he's a thousand times better than a Bush in the White House.

Posted by: shaman7214 | June 24, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

Honestly, I think it speaks volumes about the attitude of the current White House press corps that Howard Kurtz has a problem with a blogger posing an actual substantive question, but thinks one of the two "noteworthy" moments in the press conference was when Obama was asked about his smoking.

Good heavens. I hope that you land somewhere public, Dan; we need you pointing out this nonsense.

Posted by: dougom | June 24, 2009 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Something stinks here. The missing people and violence suggests the leaders of Iran are of a murderous regime. Although the world is watching Iran has literally locked its' doors. Again USA is posed in a bad light, "The CIA spending millions to encourage the rioting?" It all happened to fast.Something stinks here. This great monster of America potentially meddling promoting chaos is going to always have a mad man cooking up a nuclear bomb. I fear someday we are going to get it, I sincerely hope I am out of here because I'm pretty sure there will be a shortage of wigs, indeed I am vain I want to look good until the very end.

Posted by: alwaysalabama2 | June 24, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Dan, as usual you continue to post quality articles. I don't know what your job status is, but I'll remain a reader as long you're there. Besides, its fun to watch these neo-cons continued exasparatatopm over your work. It's also past time that the Washington press corp had their pompous bubble popped.

Posted by: BBear1 | June 24, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Does it not look hypocritical on the part of the press to beat up on the morals of another country with our current history of Gitmo, water boarding, Abu Ghraib, not to mention the lies/WMD based Iraq invasion with countless deaths of women and children?
I also do not recall any press fury when so many more women and children perished and homes destroyed in Gaza and white phosphorous used. Was Bush questioned for his reaction? Any photographs of a pretty Gaza woman who died like Ms Soltan or no Palestinian woman or child is photogenic enough?

Posted by: qualquan | June 24, 2009 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Obama is ramping up to take it to the highest level under Carter's foreign policy handbook. We will all need to turn on our headlights to show our support for the Iranian people. The Mullahs will rue the day. It was highly effective for Carter during the hostage stand-off and will be equally effective here.

If Carter had supported placing the Prince on the thrown this all may never have been necessary.

Posted by: Bubbette1 | June 24, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Obama is ramping up to take it to the highest level under Carter's foreign policy handbook. We will all need to turn on our headlights to show our support for the Iranian people. The Mullahs will rue the day. It was highly effective for Carter during the hostage stand-off and will be equally effective here.

If Carter had supported placing the Prince on the thrown this all may never have been necessary.

Posted by: Bubbette1
__________________________________________

Thats so bass akwards its funny.

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | June 24, 2009 5:24 PM | Report abuse

"placing the Prince on the thrown"??

I think you mean "throne."

Posted by: BW42 | June 24, 2009 5:50 PM | Report abuse

I thought you were gone from WaPo, Dan.

My opinion of this paper has just gone back up an order of magnitude.

Posted by: WWWexler | June 24, 2009 5:50 PM | Report abuse

It'll be interesting to see how this shakes out over the next year or so. Those in power in Iran have demonstrated that they will bald facedly lie, cheat and steal and so lost any credibility that they may have had. If they now refuse to allow independent and extensive outside verification will the world be able to believe their assertions that Iran's nuclear program is for peaceable purposes? On the other hand as you point out, there's virtually no chance that we or the Europeans can talk with them about their nuclear program at this point in time. If Iran is a nuclear threat and we can't have a dialogue with them or verify their intentions, are the Likudniks' and chickenhawks' hopes of war with Iran now more likely to be realized than they were before the election?

Posted by: -bwg | June 24, 2009 5:54 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure Obama withdrew his hand as much as Iran -- well-- I can't really say Iran has closed the door.

But this whole process is fraught with much drama, and I would think the closer the US gets to Iraqi withdrawal, the more erratic the behavior will be become in terms of violence and economics.

Korea will shoot it's rocket on the 4th, already its ships are being tracked, we start officially leaving Iraq on the 30th, and then Afghanistan and who knows what else...

In the meantime, he's still facing the budget problems as well as reformng health care, and the lingering wounds of the torture kooks still remain unresolved, and will, until justice is served.

The "PAC of Evil" is very busy, indeedy...

Busy summer!

Posted by: thegreatpotatospamof2003 | June 24, 2009 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Oschneider1's comments concerning Iran's aging oil infrastructure (if accurate) strikes me as an affirmation for what Iran insists is a civilian, not military nuclear program.

To this assertion, add the reality that, while Iran continues to export crude oil, the country has no refining capacity, and must import gasoline and other petroleum products. On top of that, the international economic decline means that demand for crude oil is not what it was one or two years ago.

Oschneider1's assertion that declining oil revenues will have an effect on keeping a lid on dissent is a pertinent observation. Iran has suffered for years from a serious unemployment problem that could well be exacerbated by the inability to placate young, restless, out of work Iranians with oil generated cash.

Iranian suppression of "Green Wave" demonstrations is reminiscent of China's Tianamen Square" actions 20 years ago. The political situation in terms of both China and Iran is different, but US capability for response is equally constrained.

For the US, the reality is that China owns billions of dollars of our debt. As a result, the US has no choice but to tread softly in reacting to China's human rights record, because of our fragile economic situation.

In the case of Iran, we have no choice but to tread softly because we have limited options in terms of condemning the government's response to the election protests, if we ultimately want to eventually engage that country in substantive talks to contain their nuclear program (and ensure that it is, in fact, strictly civilian).

A cautious, wait and see attitude is appropriate, until the political situation clarifies. With all due respect to Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, too much rattling of the moral saber is counterproductive.

Posted by: MillPond2 | June 24, 2009 6:05 PM | Report abuse

Obama basically has little choice but to at least temporarily withdraw his "open hand" to Iran. He is increasingly showing himself to be a president who is unduly sensitive to criticisms, even from neo-cons and Republicans, and deferential to Democratic leaders in Congress, special interest groups, the military, CIA, certain unions, just about any group with significant political influence. Anyone who thinks this is change we can believe in needs to check how much sugar is in the Kool aide they are drinking.

With many in the media, along with most Republicans, criticizing his previous restraint toward the Iranian government, some of these people trying to promote a confrontation with Iran, Obama is vacillating and hardly being consistent.

This is hardly now, opposition parties, many in the media have tried to stir up confrontations or incite wars between this country and other countries since the 1790's. Some presidents,resisted the pressure to intervene or go to war, many others have succumbed.

Obama could go either way.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | June 24, 2009 6:11 PM | Report abuse

"placing the Prince on the thrown"??

I think you mean "throne."

Posted by: BW42 | June 24, 2009 6:16 PM | Report abuse

For the US, the reality is that China owns billions of dollars of our debt. As a result, the US has no choice but to tread softly in reacting to China's human rights record, because of our fragile economic situation.

In the case of Iran, we have no choice but to tread softly because we have limited options in terms of condemning the government's response to the election protests, if we ultimately want to eventually engage that country in substantive talks to contain their nuclear program (and ensure that it is, in fact, strictly civilian).

-------------

So, in effect, you've made them the reigning economic powers, albeit with a fragile and specious, a cosmetic if you will, facade.

I would argue the validity of that point for any number of reasons, first and foremost, you're assuming the total power of any country is determined by a stagnant, past economic trend, and that simply isn't true, real power is determined by potential, the potential also being the reserve, and in this case, the US is unmatched. The factors determining true power are enormous, not just dependent on a facile economic pretense.

But, for the sake of arguemnt, say your point is valid.

The US then assumes the role of the ones unable to match other in terms of material resources, unable to match the greater economic power of the other -- (which, as you can see, isn't true).

So, how do we compete within the scenario you presented? How can we asymmetrically fight to bring, so to speak, bring about a trend toward democracy in the ME despite your scenario, how can we bring about our own economic and energy independence given Cheney's horrible mistakes?

And how do we do this with limited resources, then?

So, we have, in effect assumed the role of the of the one with less resources, reversing position in how we approach an enemy, right?

It is, in effect, the study of the relationship between the master and slave, which has its own dynamic, the master, who would supress the rights of others, really the slave...

Posted by: thegreatpotatospamof2003 | June 24, 2009 6:29 PM | Report abuse

To the greatpotatospamof2003: I think you read too much into what I said in my previous post. I am merely acknowledging what I consider to be realities that this administration needs to consider in its dealings with other countries (notably China and Iran). China, by holding a massive amount of our debt, is equally dependent upon our ability to weather the current economic situation. They need cash from exports to prop up their economy; if Americans contract spending and focus on savings, China is in serious economic trouble.

I never intimated that American is powerless. However, power has its limitations. The British Empire at the height of its eminence could never overcome the regional potentates whose territories are now occupied by Al Queda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Neither Great Britain or the US have ever secured absolute control over the Kyber Pass).

We need wisdom and cunning in the exercise of foreign policy, not brute, reactionary use of force. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, it is better to wield the stick than actually use it.

In addition, a global economy creates interdependencies that foreign policy can't ignore. Our ability to influence other nations depends on analyzing and understanding the dynamics of economic and political factors, and then acting in a manner that recognizes those dynamics. The so-called "Neo-Conservatives" in their manifesto entitled "Project for a New American Century", failed to understand that nuance, rather than brute projection of force, is often the ingredient that leads to progress. The morass Iraq, as well as the refusal to learn from the Vietnam quagmire, are the ruins of their philosophy of their "Pax Americana".

In spite of our economic and military prowess, we have been impotent in furthering our interests in dealing with countries such as China, North Korea and Iran.

As for exporting democracy to other nations, it is presumptive to assume that such democracies, if they arise, will necessarily resemble the the type of government we enjoy in this country. Free elections often lead to political establishments that don't support our preconceptions or desires. As the Bush administration realized during its' second term, you have to be careful what you wish for.

Posted by: MillPond2 | June 24, 2009 7:49 PM | Report abuse

Froomkin's back! I'm so happy I can't believe it. Maybe all those emails weren't for naught. I quit reading the Post but a friend told me you were back. I can't believe it.

Posted by: MrKansas | June 24, 2009 8:22 PM | Report abuse

millpond2--the economic arguments can get a bit subtler, anyhow. I'm no economist--rather, an oceanographer--but I do try to stay aware of, and current on, the issues. China has its own issues relative to this worldwide crash we're dealing with, due largely to Chinese citizens' overwhelming tendency to save their earnings (basically, the opposite of us). Due to changes in relative worths of currency, and China's declining exports, they're anything but an economic overlord right now. Not that you were suggesting they are--but I would suspect that China's largest influence in the mideast, in years to come, will be due not to their being a large creditor to us, but being a large consumer of crude oil.

And to have real influence in the the oil-producing countries, we need to hit them in the wallet. I do support a significant--say, one dollar per gallon--fuel tax, not only as a revenue stream for the government but also to strongly encourage conservation and development of alternate energy sources. Furthermore, it will weaken the influence of the tyrants who depend on oil profits to stay in power--such as the mullahs of Iran (and Chavez, and Putin...).

Posted by: whizbang9a | June 24, 2009 9:56 PM | Report abuse

Whizbang9a: I totally agree with enacting a fuel tax. While gas prices are not as high as they were last year, they are creeping up as the summer season swings into gear. I thought that last year, when prices were hovering around $4.00/gallon, that the tune was ripe for enacting a such a tax, but the latest price creep still presents an opportunity.

However, no one in Congress has the fortitude to propose a bill, and if someone did, it would die in committee. Any tax proposal in this economic climate (or any climate, for that matter) would be considered political suicide.

Additionally, we as a nation seriously need to consider a crash program of energy conservation, but this issue historically has had no "sex appeal" (recall former President Jimmy Carter in his sweater exhorting Americans to conserve during the gas crisis of the 1970s).

By the way, I'm no economist either.

Posted by: MillPond2 | June 24, 2009 10:21 PM | Report abuse

Maybe we should tell the mullahs that Bibi Netanyahu is now our lead negotiator.

Posted by: samellison | June 25, 2009 12:38 AM | Report abuse

THE POWER OF NEDA

A young Iranian student has arrested the world’s attention in her dying moments. Neda has energized a revolution.
-
http://pacificgatepost.blogspot.com/2009/06/neda-agha-soltan-innocent-symbol-of.html
.
The emotional connection has moved Western leaders to respond, and Obama has been kicked off his mark.

Posted by: JamesRaider | June 25, 2009 12:43 AM | Report abuse

@ Qualquan:

"Does it not look hypocritical on the part of the press to beat up on the morals of another country with our current history of Gitmo, water boarding, Abu Ghraib, not to mention the lies/WMD based Iraq invasion with countless deaths of women and children?"

The short answer is no, it doesn't look that way to the press themselves, and in case you haven't noticed, they've gotten as good at ignoring the citizenry who do notice the hipocracy as the politicians have.

Posted by: kcsphil | June 25, 2009 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Froomkin, you're back. Welcome. Or were you ever really gone? Maybe the WaPo should take a lesson from "The Donald" on how to fire someone. When he says "You're fired" then you're history and you stay that way.

Posted by: xtrump42 | June 25, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

One cannot make policy nine months ago and to use today...

Posted by: edmundsingleton1 | June 26, 2009 4:19 AM | Report abuse

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