The Collective
Sunday, June 21, 2009
By Steven L. Taylor

While I have been following the news from Iran during my vacation (which is now over), my ability (and willingness) to pay the amount of attention that I would normally has been diminished. One thing that I have found interesting is that a lot of attention is being paid to President Obama’s reaction in terms of public pronouncements. Indeed, I have heard and read more references to criticisms/evaluations of what he has said than I have as to what he has actually said.

Without getting into exactly what Obama has said, several thoughts keep rolling around in my head:

1. I think that Americans frequently overestimate the power of the words of our president (and not just this one). While I agree that given the superpower status of the United States that what the president says matters, it is unlikely that in a situation like this one that either the Iranian regime or the protesters will pay much heed to what is being said halfway around the world. They are, to put it mildly, a tad busy at the moment. We just aren’t that important to this event at this moment. This focus on what our president says is a sign, amongst other things, of our national egotism. We don’t influence or control events anywhere near as much as we think we do.

2. A lot of us haven’t learned some of the lessons that the Bush administration illustrated and one of them was that strident rhetoric doesn’t necessarily help. The “Axis of Evil” line comes to mind, but so too does much of his “for us or against us” statements. Consider that all those lines did was paint the administration into a corner and caused the admin to have to backtrack later (such as with the North Koreans). Such rhetoric also made the Iranian situation even more difficult, as it created a situation in which the Bush administration would only be willing to talk to the Iranians after the Iranians had already capitulated to the administration’s demands.

Such rhetoric can be quite satisfying at times (at least to some), but that doesn’t make it good policy. I will confess that I found some of President Bush’s rhetoric satisfying in the post-9/11 period, but should have understood at the time that it was going to ultimately be problematic. As much as we would like the world to be a simple thing that can be divided easily into good guys and bad guys, it simply doesn’t work that way (never has and never will).

And back to the last sentence of point #1: our control of events is limited. Consider how events in Iraq remain ultimately our of control despite an invasion and a half-decade+ military presence. We have yet to construct a viable democratic state (and perhaps not a viable state–stay tuned to find out) and yet many think that what the president says will actually have a significant effect on what is currently transpiring in Iran. Really?

3. So, while we overestimate the importance of what presidents say (point #1), the bottom line is that making a mistake can lead to long term difficulties (point #2). As such, prudence dictates that moderation is the wise course. Indeed, the dictum that it is better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt comes to mind.

4. It seems to me that the last thing we want to do is to make the US the issue in Iran. Would it really be in the protesters’ interest for them to be seen as the “pro-American” faction? Do we really want to cast this situation in terms that the Guardian Council sees the conflict as not one with domestic political factions, but one in which that any capitulation would be a victory to the United States? If one wants liberalization in Iran I can’t imagine that making the US an issue would be desirable.

On this topic, I would recommend a post by Alex Knapp over at OTB who notes the meme that is going around right now about what Reagan said about the Soviet Union. Alex notes that Reagan did use harsh rhetoric, but his action vis-à-vis the USSR demonstrate a stark contrast with US policy towards Iran. There is obviously a host of important differences between US-USSR relations and US-Iran relations, but Alex’s post is worth considering for those who think that all there was to Reagan’s Soviet policy was simply telling them to tear down the Berlin Wall.

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