Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Community Organizer Foreign Policy

When so many commentators made a fuss over Barack Obama's statement, in answer to a primary debate question, that he would meet unconditionally with such leaders as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I thought it was the usual game of gotcha.

Any administration will have contacts and discussions with any government, as is appropriate for the time and situation. It seemed like a silly thing to make an issue of. But Republicans (and the Clinton campaign) were determined to use the statement to paint Obama as hopelessly naïve and not ready for primetime. When Obama eventually took office, that old issue faded somewhat, as many were struck with how consistent his policies really were with the Bush Administration's. The tone might be different, many suggested, but the substance was basically the same. Indeed, even in the case of his signature foreign policy act to date, addressing "the Muslim world" in a speech in Cairo, many pointed out that George W. Bush had said many of the same things but that the difference was that Obama was a more credible and compelling messenger.

But now, in the aftermath of the Iranian election, we are seeing more clearly the true divergence between Bush and Obama foreign policy. In this area, it is not really a question of Republican versus Democrat or conservative versus liberal. In recent history, the two philosophical poles in American policy have been the realist approach and the idealistic or ideological approach. In a nutshell, the realists deal with the world as it is and are not about trying to change it. Their stock in trade is crisis management or, even better, crisis avoidance. Deep down they feel that all nations are really pretty similar and that various national interests can be managed with enough communication and good will. The idealist/ideologues, on the other hand, believe in right and wrong. They know that some governments are intent on the destruction of their designated enemies and, if they engage in diplomacy at all, it is to ease the way for the eventual fatal blow. They think that democracy is good and authoritarianism is bad.

Clearly, Obama is at heart a realist. So was Bill Clinton and, for that matter, as was the first President Bush. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (at least as long as the neo-conservatives held sway) fell more on the idealist/ideologue side. Of course, this oversimplifies things. Every administration will have elements of both realism and idealism in its foreign policy. But with his tepid, lawyerly response to events in Iran, Obama has shown himself to be a realist down to his core.

It is easy to see his thought processes, as the man became famous for orating struggles for words and then concludes that he does not want to "meddle" in an Iranian election. His thinking seems to go something like this. It's not right to criticize a country's nuclear ambitions because, after all, the U.S. itself has nuclear weapons and has even used them in wartime. How to criticize another country's elections after what happened in the U.S. in 2000? Indeed, how to say anything at all very critical of Iran after the CIA's involvement in a coup more than 50 years ago? Besides, Obama's game plan is to build influence with the Iranian regime by showing it the respect that Bush never did, hence the muted U.S. response to obvious election fraud and his use of the term "Supreme Leader" (which is a title of respect rather than an official one) for Ali Khamenei.

I suppose Obama is doing the smart thing not to offer encouragement to Iranian protestors. After all, it is easier to come up with a strategy for a situation that is well entrenched and well known. If Iran should become unstable with democratic fervour, then things get more complicated. There will be new personalities to get to know and viewpoints to understand. There might be violence. Besides, what's the big deal with the election anyway? Even if it had been fair, who's to say that Ahmadinejad might not have won anyway? And, coming from Chicago, our president wouldn't find a relentless political machine and a little ballot box stuffing that shocking anyway.

If democracy were to flower in Persia, then the argument would immediately become over who could take credit for it. Many were quick to credit Obama's Cairo speech for Hezbollah's electoral setback a few days later in Lebanon. Undoubtedly, the same will be said of Iran, Obama's stated desire not to "meddle," notwithstanding. The truth is that any democratic groundswell in Iran will be due to the will and courage of the Iranian people. But some will argue, and not without justification, that Iranians could not help but be influenced by the establishment of democracy in their next-door neighbor. That would be Iraq, a country that has electoral democracy thanks, to a large extent, to that idealist/ideologue George W. Bush.

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