June 23, 2009

Something of A Mea Culpa

Jeff Weintraub writes (in an otherwise favorable review: “(e)ven so-called foreign-policy "realists" are sometimes startled and moved by actual realities. Here is a fine and eloquent outburst from Greg Djerejian...”) of a recent post of mine:

I will skip the rest, since it is not so much about Iran as about the ideological dogfights going on here in the US, in the punditocracy and the blogosphere, about how the US government and the rest of us should respond to that ongoing political drama in Iran. Those debates have generated some light, but more heat than light--that is, they have been excessively pervaded (in my view) by inter-sectarian point-scoring, score-settling, predictable sloganeering, ideological posturing, and reciprocal accusations of hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty. (Yes, some of those accusations have been justified, to some degree, on all sides.) So I have mostly tried to avoid all that, and to focus on serious and potentially illuminating analyses of what is going on in Iran. With all respect to Greg Djerejian, I think (fairly or unfairly) that some of those critical remarks apply to at least some aspects of the non-quoted portion of his post (including the rather tiresome ritual "neocon"-bashing which is becoming too much of a reflex in some quarters). But not to all of them ... so anyone who is interested in considering the rest of his discussion can pursue it here.

I want to issue something of a mea culpa here. I have noted a tendency in this space with the passage of the years to engage in a decent amount of what might pass for neo-con “bashing”, whether ritual or otherwise. The reasons are many, to include:

1) the fevered overall tone of much of the blogosphere, where often ‘Fisking’ (itself a sophomoric moniker regrettably demeaning to a very talented journalist) another’s op-ed or posting serves as jumping off point for one’s own commentary;

2) in candor, writing on occasion as something akin to a shot at redemptive therapy, given that coming out of my experiences in the mid-90s in the Balkans I’d not infrequently made common cause with some of the neo-cons (looking for greater intervention by the West during the horrors of Bosnia), to subsequently include early support for our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq; and

3) at some point towards the second half of Bush’s second term, reaching a tremendous bursting point brought on by a confluence of Rumsfeld’s staggeringly poor stewardship of the Iraq War, essentially constituting criminal neglect, this followed by Dubya’s stubbornly childish and recalcitrant ‘Decider’ moment, before finally replacing a disgraced Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, as well the mind-boggling fiasco of Katrina and, of course, the horrific crimes that the top-down authorized torture apparatus authorized in far-flung outposts to include Guantanamo, black-sites in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, Bagram, and through Iraq, most notoriously (only because of the photographic evidence) at Abu Ghraib.

In short, I felt like we were living a period in American history where truly incredible blunders were being committed by national security miscreants on an epic scale, and so like many, and taken in conjunction with variables like “1” and “2” above, was using my little soap-box here to scream from the cyber-roof-tops, perhaps a bit loutishly at times, veering into polemics and arguably even ad hominems on occasion, or indeed as Jeff writes, generally engaging at times in: “inter-sectarian point-scoring, score-settling, predictable sloganeering, ideological posturing, and reciprocal accusations of hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty.” Do I regret it? Not really probably, all told, but still, I apologize for the sometimes overly fevered tone this space succumbed to, and indeed, may still going forward (I am only human).

But all this being said, let us return to the recent post where—in really charting out in the main my views on Iran—I did admittedly veer into reasonably lengthy commentaries about two of the most prominent neo-cons, namely Charles Krauthammer and Paul Wolfowitz. I must confess, I do remain truly stunned, not as much by Mr. Krauthammer (who I view as the more stubbornly incorrigible of the two) but more so Mr. Wolfowitz, that they continue to hold their heads up relatively high deigning to provide policy prescriptions after the manifold disasters that the Bush 43 policies precipitated. I can do little better than to quote Andrew Bacevich, writing in his well reasoned and very estimable “The Limits of Power” (here showing how Wolfowitz was becoming something of an increasingly untamed Paul Nitze on steroids):

So the aftermath of 9/11 found Wolfowitz venturing into precincts where Nitze himself had feared to tread, advocating a policy of “anticipatory self defense,” a euphemism for preventive war. Within forty-eight hours of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he was already declaring categorically that, in its response to 9/11, the United States had no intention of confining its actions to those directly involved in the terrorist conspiracy. Bringing Osama bin Laden and his associates to justice would not suffice. Rather, the United States was intent on undertaking “a broad and sustained campaign” against any and all states posing a terrorist threat. The aim went beyond targeting would-be terrorists themselves. The United States meant to deprive terrorists of sanctuaries or “safe havens” by nothing less than a policy of “ending states who support terrorism.” In NSC 68, Nitze had at least made a pretense of offering several options for consideration. For Wolfowitz after 9/11, there existed only a single option: open-ended global war…History will remember Paul Wolfowitz as the intellectual Svengali who conjured up the Bush Doctrine. In NSC 68, Nitze had rejected preventive war as “repugnant.” Wolfowitz now promoted it as permissible, essential, even inviting.

Absent in all this is a hint of a Niebuhrian humility Bacevich also cites in his discussion of Wolfowitz, that “the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.” Instead, a cock-sure certainty prevails, despite the Iraq debacle (see the latest haughty pronunciamentos about what Obama should be doing in Iran).

Bacevich concludes his discussion here:

No doubt today’s Wise Men see themselves as devoted patriots. No doubt they even mean well. Yet that’s not good enough. As Paul Wolfowitz himself wrote, “No U.S. President can justify a policy that fails to achieve its intended results by pointing to the purity and rectitude of his intentions.” Much the same can be said of those who advise presidents and whose advice yields horrific consequences of the sort we have endured beginning on 9/11 and continuing ever since. They have forfeited any further claim to trust. [my emphasis]

Indeed, and coming from a man who lost his own son (to whom this somehow muted and dispassionate, yet very compelling, manifesto is dedicated) in the war in Iraq, this is a particularly compelling refutation, in my view.

As for Mr. Krauthammer, I don’t have much more to say, really. He is clearly no one’s fool, and has written some pieces considered important by some, such as The Unipolar Moment Revisited in the Winter 2002 National Interest. But it is perhaps instructive to take another quick peek at it now a half decade plus on. The overt triumphalist tone showcases well Krauthammer’s grandiose over-reaching.

Of Afghanistan, he wrote then, about the U.S. response to 9/11:

Being a relatively pacific, commercial republic, the United States does not go around looking for demonstration wars. This one was thrust upon it. In response, America showed that at a range of 7,000 miles and with but a handful of losses, it could destroy within weeks a hardened, fanatical regime favored by geography and climate in the “graveyard of empires.”

Would that it had been so easy! Here we are now some seven years into the Afghan conflict, embroiled in a hugely challenging counter-insurgency campaign that will drag on for many years yet, alas (I believe this mission all but doomed to failure, and have shared my views on occasion in this space, most recently here). But for Mr. Krauthammer it was mission accomplished by the late autumn of 2002!

Mr. Krauthammer has also not distinguished himself (indeed, you might say has disgraced himself) by becoming one of the more notable neo-con proponents of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, or stripped of the deadening conceit of this bland apparatchik Orwellianism, torture full stop. Like the abolition of slavery or habeas corpus rights, forbidding any use of torture has become a touchstone of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought and society, and screeds in the pages of the Weekly Standard about fanciful ‘ticking time bomb’ scenarios cannot be viewed as intellectually serious in the long march of history, even if many have leapt on this pro-torture bandwagon, right on down to the Kafkaesque imagery of possibly inserting a creeping insect into a confined space with a human being to maximize fears born of phobias about spiders or such, or inducing in them the feeling of being drowned, or as happened far too often, allowing some combination of extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation, and stress positions to lead to the deaths of scores of detainees in our custody. This is the legacy of the intellectual enablers of a pro-torture policy hoisted on a confused country enmeshed in fear and mourning after the ashes of 9/11. But this cannot be acceptable, staining so profoundly our honor and titular role as avatar of international human rights in the global system. As the English Law Lords had written in an opinion I’d previously cited in this space:

That word honour, the deep note which Blackstone strikes twice in one sentence, is what underlies the legal technicalities of this appeal. The use of torture is dishonourable. It corrupts and degrades the state which uses it and the legal system which accepts it. When judicial torture was routine all over Europe, its rejection by the common law was a source of national pride and the admiration of enlightened foreign writers such as Voltaire and Beccaria. In our own century, many people in the United States, heirs to that common law tradition, have felt their country dishonoured by its use of torture outside the jurisdiction and its practice of extra-legal "rendition" of suspects to countries where they would be tortured: Just as the writ of habeas corpus is not only a special (and nowadays infrequent) remedy for challenging unlawful detention but also carries a symbolic significance as a touchstone of English liberty which influences the rest of our law, so the rejection of torture by the common law has a special iconic importance as the touchstone of a humane and civilised legal system. Not only that: the abolition of torture, which was used by the state in Elizabethan and Jacobean times to obtain evidence admitted in trials before the court of Star Chamber, was achieved as part of the great constitutional struggle and civil war which made the government subject to the law. Its rejection has a constitutional resonance for the English people which cannot be overestimated. [my emphasis]

This dishonor, too, will irrevocably be part of the neo-con’s legacy (with such prominent neo-con adherents as Mr. Krauthammer, how can it not, even if some neo-cons here and there may have been opposed) and for this reason too, as Mr. Bacevich stated, they have “forfeited any further claim to trust.”

Mr. Krauthammer ended his National Interest article writing: "(t)he challenge to unipolarity is not from the outside but from the inside. The choice is ours. To impiously paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: History has given you an empire, if you will keep it."

It is instructive here to actually see what Benjamin Franklin said originally, and Scott Horton—if in a slightly different context--addresses this very well in Harpers here:

As Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, on September 18, 1787, a certain Mrs. Powel shouted out to him: “Well, doctor, what have we got?,” and Franklin responded: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Like many of the Founding Fathers, he was intensely concerned that the democratic institutions they were crafting would deteriorate over time. In particular, they were concerned—and talked ceaselessly during the convention about the risk that, under pressures and exigencies of war, a tyrant would collapse their system into something closer to the monarchy that they had just defeated. Over the intervening 220 years, the republic has maintained itself, though not without close calls. And today, while we face what may be the gravest challenge in the nation’s history, our media will serve up the next chapter in the life of Paris Hilton.

Mr. Krauthammer rather turns Benjamin Franklin’s logic on its head with his paraphrasing, quite “impiously” indeed, as many of the very policies Mr. Krauthammer advocates with such alacrity (an unbridled executive, use of torture, preemptive war) run directly contra Franklin’s admonition to fight to preserve a constitutional Republic.

Scott Horton goes on to quote the great jurist Learned Hand:

Near the close of the Second World War, Learned Hand–a man who embodies everything that constitutes a good citizen, a great judge and a patriot–made a powerful speech at the Great Lawn in Central Park. “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women,” he said, “when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.

Like many profound points, Hand’s description seems very obvious, even bordering on the banal. But it is a critical apercu. And it is what concerns me the most about present day America. In the (mostly) collective shrug about so-called ‘prolonged’ or ‘indefinite’ detention (a policy egregiously so afoul of the ancient writ of habeas corpus that, as with torture, I’d have thought essentially junking such a touchstone of post-Enlightenment societies, even if with some lipstick applied to the pig, could not be so uncontroversially countenanced across two political parties), in the general feebleness of refusing to mount a high-profile, relentless investigation into how a torture policy was allowed to encrust itself at the highest levels of the Executive of this great nation allowing for men to die in our custody in a veritable archipelago of detention centers worldwide, in the slothful obeisance to wars of choice dragging on possibly for decades, in all this do we not see liberty beating in the “hearts of men” less steadfastly than we’d hope for in a fabled democracy (one with many reasons to be prideful of its rich heritage, in the main)?

Do we not see in swaths of our society a country that risks—only too happy to, say, revel in a doubtless dystopian populism characterized by huge ignorance as with the Palin wing of the GOP, with say another terror attack and less capable political leadership than we enjoy at present—a descent into a populist form of authoritarianism infested by the moronic pensees and discourse we witness nightly on the network gab-fests? I am fundamentally more optimistic than this, not least given the hugely important Obama victory over McCain, but still there is a calcification in outlook on even totemic issues that has taken root across large swaths of the polity that gives fear (in its easy certitudes that, so self-contented, verge on the morally corrupt), so that it is not merely a matter of one political party over the other. But at very least, let us move away from some of the intellectual enablers of the worst of the excesses, as we fight for a brighter future! And so, I will apologize to readers who, like Jeff Weintraub, felt I may have succumbed too readily to sloganeering and intellectual posturing on occasion, but that said, I hope this post helps clarify the ‘why’, if you will.

Speaking of apologies, a final thought. Another reason many of us find the behavior of the neo-conservatives galling and offensive is, not only how wrong-headed their policy prescriptions were and are, but also that they have been so roundly unapologetic, indeed unrepentant and as stubbornly bull-headed as ever (save notable exceptions who broke early like Francis Fukuyama, who anyhow are now post-schism not regarded as one of the club by the residual die-hards a la Krauthammer and, evidently, Mr.Wolfowitz). Michiko Kakutani, in a book review of Bradley Graham’s Donald Rumsfeld biography, notes:

Asked to assess Mr. Rumsfeld’s tenure, Mr. Graham reports, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger gave him “high marks as a secretary of defense trying to revamp the U.S. military but scored Rumsfeld low as a secretary of war,” noting that the same was true of Robert S. McNamara, the only other Pentagon chief with an equally controversial term in office. Mr. Graham points out that both Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. McNamara came from the corporate world, both had keen analytic minds and “insatiable appetites for data,” both sought tighter civilian control of the military and both presided over long, costly and unpopular wars.

The big difference between the two men, Mr. Graham adds, is how they ultimately viewed their own tenures: “despite his public cheerleading for the Vietnam War, Mr. McNamara privately became dubious about its wisdom and effectiveness while still in office” and came to recognize “that he had failed as defense secretary because of mistakes he and others had made in Vietnam.” In contrast, Mr. Graham writes, Mr. Rumsfeld “did not leave office doubting his handling of the Iraq war” and “has acknowledged no major missteps or shown any remorse on the subject to date.” [my emphasis]

No acknowledgement of missteps (actually, with Rumsfeld of late, it is worse, more a disingenuous acknowledgement essentially seeking to remove himself from direct culpability). But yes, overall, no acknowledgements of material mis-steps. Democracy not necessarily a "default condition to which societies would revert once liberated from dictators" (as Stephen Holmes observes in a penetrating piece from the LRB back in '06)? Too much of a bovine tendency towards "over-personalizing any 'regime' that they dream of destabalising, identifying it with a single reprehensible ruler", as Holmes also flags? Perhaps a truer more genuine reconsideration of the initial troop levels in Iraq, rather than now simply roundly feting and cheerleading a terribly belated 'surge', occurring so late that the damage done by any reasonable cost-benefit metric was already titanic enough so as to counsel strongly against prolonging a terrible misadventure. And so on. All this, with no remorse either, to Bradley Graham's point of the differences between McNamara and Rumsfeld.

Let me be clear, this is not a request for some Inquisition-style auto-de-fe , accompanied by protracted bouts of public flagellation. But to be a purported Wise Man or foreign policy expert, you must be able to recalibrate and learn from one’s mistakes. Instead, as David Rieff once quipped to me: “(l)ike the Trotskyists of yore, these people are never wrong if only they had been listened to and allowed to follow their mad utopian schemes to their limit.” This failure to learn from experience, this rigid ideological lock-step (indeed they essentially look to double-down even post the Iraq debacle, now with some calling for bombing Iran), in my opinion, displays a lack of character that is very worrisome and frankly reprehensible, especially given the human and other costs (of which more in a subsequent post). Forgive me therefore for not trusting their policy suggestions on Iran, or any other issues, for that matter. And forgive me too for on occasion having gotten overly hot-headed in the cyber-pages of Belgravia Dispatch, to Jeff Weintraub's point, which provoked this post.

Posted by Gregory at 10:30 PM | Comments (3)

June 21, 2009

Obama's Statement on Iran

President Obama's statement:

The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.

As I said in Cairo, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.

Martin Luther King once said - "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.

This is basically pitch-perfect. And shows real conscientiousness in its drafting, for which kudos are in order. To deconstruct some, keying off the key phrases:

1) “The world is watching”—A powerful admonishment to the Iranian regime as they calculate how severe a crack-down they can afford to contemplate and/or pursue, one issued personally by the world’s most prominent leader (and also a statement that will provide something of a back-door morale boost to the protestors, albeit accomplished indirectly via the more direct, explicit warning the statement portends to the key players around Khamenei);

2) “We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost”, not just ministerial fare, but rather showing this Administration is sensitized to the growing humanitarian toll;

3) A call on the Iranian Government to “stop all violent and unjust actions” against its people, as Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, the word “unjust” will resonate strongly on the ground, but still, this carefully parsed language is calibrated enough that it cannot easily be portrayed as incitement by a foreign power;

4) “The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights”. “Must be respected” risks sounding somewhat diktat-like, but this is softened by a reference to “universal” rights (and although Obama further risks sounding overly vague here, he is nonetheless careful in specifying the rights of ‘assembly and free speech’, which of course carry a clear import for Moussavi’s supporters, but while again being wisely couched in the language of the general rights of man);

5) Next, a nod to the Cairo speech, and that suppression of ideas “never succeeds in making them go away”, essentially linking the events in Iran to his key-stone speech to the region a fortnight or so earlier, in this way, further highlighting the historic import of the events underway in Iran;

6) “The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government”, very able again, in its ambiguity (what actions is he speaking of precisely?) as here he appears to be both a) staking out a U.S. position less hectoring than some European states who have weighed in too far I believe on the falsity of the electoral results, by more properly suggesting in the absence of internationally approved election monitors and the like having been on the ground the Iranians themselves will need to sort out electoral adjustments, if any, but also, and more likely his meaning here b) this is of course referencing too the crackdown, another warning shot across the bow that the Iranian public will be judging events, buttressed further by his next line: “(i)f the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.” (dignity is a very well chosen word in this context);

7) The MLK quote is splendid, as our first African-American President it resonates all the more to quote him, as “(t)he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, could well describe how someone like Obama could ascend to the great office he holds today, given the long, painful struggles with slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights and so on in this country;

8) He reinforces and personalizes "7" immediately above, given again the dramatic heft these lines are given by the man delivering them, by stating: “I believe that”, and then without sounding the least bit presumptuous, stating the international community does too;

9) Perhaps the most important line, in terms of signal to the regime in Iran, “we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth” to which he stresses again, we will continue to “bear witness”, as bearing witness is not the same as crudely intervening, an important signal really to all the players there (including too the protestors, who after all, must not be led on that the cavalry is coming as they make their courageous internal calculations in the coming days), and regardless, is all told the most we could offer at this juncture, while also affording the regime an opening to step back from the brink (though I doubt they will); and

10) Last, I can’t help saying it, what a relief to have some competence back at the helm, and if I shudder some to think at the Bush 43 statement that would have been issued, I shudder far more at the quasi-crazed meanderings a McCain-Palin Administration would have had us sketching out here, helping scuttle possibilities of avoiding more of a large-scale Tiananmen event (though alas we may still face one, but at least not yet) and rendering even more incendiary a hugely fraught situation.

Let’s admit it, we are all damn lucky Obama won, with many of his (increasingly frothing & rabid-like) opponents simply deeply envious of his extremely strong political talents and gifts. Worth noting too, I am all but sure he personally drafted and/or reviewed in depth this statement, which again shows real care and high intelligence and sophisticated understanding of history, to include the current Iranian situation, and regional sensitivities. Yes, he is very, very good. Frankly one of my few concerns as he goes about implementing his policies (both foreign and domestic) is that he not get overly cock-sure on occasion, there are flashes of conceit here and there (a conceit perhaps that by his very transformative being, perhaps, dramatic changes might more easily occur in forlorn spots around the globe, or for that matter, states nearing 15% U-3 unemployment like Michigan), but then again, we have Michelle for this!

Posted by Gregory at 08:07 AM | Comments (13)

June 20, 2009

Where Is This Place That We Are Only Screaming To the World With Our Silence?

This place is Iran, a country on the cusp of possibly an even larger-scale violent crackdown than as of this hour (writing Saturday mid-afternoon, New York time), another revolution, or some alternative denouement unknown to us at this hour. With the howling cries of ‘Allah-o-akbar’ in the background, in a YouTubed video reportedly made Friday evening in Iran (via The Lede) the subject caption above is spoken by what sounds like a young female narrator (at the 1:35 mark). A hauntingly beautiful and arresting line--one which she breaks into tears uttering—seems to distill much of the spirit of the ‘silent’ protests of the Moussavi movement.

How can we not fail to be moved by her achingly sincere yearnings? How can our conscience not demand something be done? After all, aren’t these ardent cries of help aimed squarely at us here, meaning leading players in the international community? And then now this Saturday we are seeing the first flare-ups of more wide-spread and protracted anti-demonstration crackdowns. Via Andrew, another heart-wrenching YouTube (if in far more direct, brutish vein) here:

Of course we are deeply repulsed and outraged at this senseless and cruel violence. And so is it any surprise there is something of a zeitgeist increasingly taking root (accelerated of course by Ayatollah Khamenei’s deeply disappointing speech yesterday) that something need be done by these United States? That somehow President Obama himself needs to ‘step up’, meaning, say and do more?

For example, and as if on cue, the Washington Post allowed for a dual-pronged assault at the supposedly callous Obamaian realism, featuring Charles Krauthammer and Paul Wolfowitz. Meantime, youthful apparatchiks from the Dubya administration, painfully naïve but positively brimming with self-importance, counsel varied initiatives that need be undertaken in the pitiable, yellow-press editorial pages of the WSJ. There are saner, more sophisticated voices counseling for more action too, however. Roger Cohen, with typical passion and elegance, demands same here. And one senses that Andrew Sullivan, intensely enmeshed in his nonpareil coverage of the ongoing events in Iran, is nearing a breaking point, despite his wise disparagement of the reckless policy prescriptions of the incorrigible neo-conservatives that Fred Hiatt publishes with great gusto (Mr. Hiatt risks increasingly appearing rather the sheepish lap-dog of late, whether the unseemly defenestration of a notable blogger at that paper—interestingly shortly after this very blogger, the well regarded Dan Froomkin, raised Mr. Krauthammer’s ire--or the tiresomely repetitive neo-con boilerplate he allows be published with abandon in his opinion pages).

I mean, what can one say about Charles Krauthammer that hasn’t been already, a mendacious ideologue who writes with the assured certainty of a zealot? From his op-ed: “All hangs in the balance. The Khamenei regime is deciding whether to do a Tiananmen. And what side is the Obama administration taking? None.” What does Mr. Krauthammer suggest we do? Send in the dough-boys into Enghelab Square? He wants fire and brim-stone and really, he is a parody of some vague notion of Schumpeterian creative destruction, roll the dice, and just hope the brown-skins from Beirut to Lahore sort it out OK (and always in a manner befitting right-Likudnik conceptions of Israel’s security, of course, ironically actually serving to weaken Tel Aviv).

Mr. Wolfowitz himself has always been more subtle, and actually has been a policy-maker, rather than a perennial back-seat driver pissing on the pratfalls of those who must govern, rather than merely turn out a column a couple times a week or stare lugubriously into a Fox Studio camera to spoon-feed a wildly credulous audience rife with ignoramuses. But for his part, it must be said, Mr. Wolfowitz is very selective in describing some of his public service as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under George Schultz, where he pushed for stronger condemnations of the Marcos regime at the time (Update: Matt Steinglass has more worth reading on the Wolfowitz/Philippines angle). It is almost as if he is engaging in revisionist burnishing of his own background, taking the Iran events as convenient launching pad, and omitting some of the (arguably more) relevant take-aways of his more immediate professional past. He writes:

No two situations are identical. But the reform the Iranian demonstrators seek is something that we should be supporting. In such a situation, the United States does not have a "no comment" option. Coming from America, silence is itself a comment -- a comment in support of those holding power and against those protesting the status quo. It would be a cruel irony if, in an effort to avoid imposing democracy, the United States were to tip the scale toward dictators who impose their will on people struggling for freedom. And if we appear so desperate for negotiations that we will abandon those who support our principles, we weaken our own negotiating hand.

Mr. Wolfowitz can play pretend this is soi disant about desperation to preserve negotiations. But, of course, this is rather about the screamingly obvious fact that were Obama to wade into this domestic fire-storm by too nakedly taking sides, say cheerleading Moussavi, it would represent the immediate death-knell of this movement. Veteran diplomats like Henry Kissinger get this (having recently complimented Obama on his handling of the situation), as do other distinguished foreign policy practitioners of the right like Richard Lugar and Dick Armitage. But not Mr. Wolfowitz, still the noble warrior on behalf of “freedom” after all these years. Of course, nothing if not clever, he goes on:

That does not mean that we need to pick sides in an Iranian election or claim to know its result. Obama could send a powerful message simply by placing his enormous personal prestige behind the peaceful conduct of the demonstrators and their demand for reform -- exactly the kind of peaceful, democratic change that he praised in his speech in Cairo.

But these are weasel-words. Obama has more or less already lauded the courage of the protestors. Tell us Mr. Wolfowitz, what exactly you’d like said, and how, rather than airily condemn Obama’s inaction? If not, this op-ed lacks any substance, and is more feel-good nostrum, I'm afraid. Or, better yet, recalling recent inglorious pass-throughs at the World Bank and as Rumsfeld’s Deputy, Mr. Wolfowitz might consider staying on the side-lines more, lest such quotes spring too easily back to mind, ’03 vintage to a House Committee:

There has been a good deal of comment - some of it quite outlandish - about what our postwar requirements might be in Iraq. Some of the higher end predictions we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark. It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army - hard to imagine.

Wildly off the mark indeed, as are Mr. Wolfowitz’s Iran musings half a decade on today.

Instead what is very clear to most sane observers is Persia’s long history of being deeply skeptical, at best, of foreign involvement in its polity given, as the Economist puts it this week, that she was “buffeted between imperial rivals—Russian, Turkish, British and American—for more than a century”. Add to this the perennial Sunni-Shi’a rivalries of the region, closer to fever-pitch post the Iraq fiasco, that feed an ongoing sense of Iranian isolation to their West in a predominantly Sunni Arab Middle East, manifested too by Iran’s own long war with Iraq. Then there is the sense of encirclement with U.S. troops in the tens and hundreds of thousands on Iran’s Western and Eastern borders, with all the loose talk of regime change to boot emitting from Washington for years, and with memories of the U.S. role in the Mossadegh coup hugely fresh in the national consciousness of almost all Iranians still.

Taking this all in, is it not something of a total no-brainer to conclude Obama is right to be prancing somewhat delicately here and not interjecting himself, and this country, more full-square into the ongoing tumult? What a gift the Supreme Leader (yes Mr. Krauthammer, that is his title), to the Basij, to other reactionary elements, were Obama to proclaim that Moussavi was America’s candidate, and that we are firmly pitching our tent alongside his (make no mistake, despite attempting to elide this, this is what some of the neo-cons, at least those who purport to give a damn about the Iranian people—unlike the Ahmadi-Nejad cheer-leaders preferring a simple narrative to get to ‘bombs away’ asap—are essentially advocating). How much more quickly and easily would Moussavi and Co. be tarred foreign agents, with a possibly more gruesome crackdown by emboldened reactionaries likely resulting!

Apart from the neo-cons, there are more refined, sensitive voices like George Packer and the aforementioned Roger Cohen who are, and not to pigeon-hole, commenting arguably from something more of a ‘liberal hawk’ vantage point. Mr. Cohen writes:

A man holds his mobile phone up to me: footage of a man with his head blown off last Monday. A man, 28, whispers: “The government will use more violence, but some of us have to make the sacrifice.”

Another whisper: “Where are you from?” When I say the United States, he says: “Please give our regards to freedom.”

Which brings me to President Barack Obama, who said in his inaugural speech: “Those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Seldom was a fist more clenched than in the ramming-through of this election result. Deceit and the attempted silencing of dissent are now Iran’s everyday currency. In this city of whispers one of the whispers now is: Where is Obama?

The president has been right to tread carefully, given poisonous American-Iranian history, but has erred on the side of caution. He sounds like a man rehearsing prepared lines rather than the leader of the free world. A stronger condemnation of the violence and repression is needed, despite Khamenei’s warnings. Obama should also rectify his erroneous equating, from the U.S. national security perspective, of Ahmadinejad and Moussavi.

Ahmadinejad is Iran’s Mr. Nuclear. He has rapidly advanced the program and, through preaching in every village mosque, successfully likened it to the nationalization of the oil industry as an assertion of Iranian nationalism. By contrast, Moussavi has not abjured the program, but has attacked Ahmadinejad’s “adventurist” and “delusional” foreign policy. These are essential distinctions.

Obama should think hard about whether this ballot-box putsch is not precisely about giving Ahmadinejad and his military-industrial coterie four more years to usher Iran at least to virtual nuclear-power status. He should also think hard about the differences in character: Ahmadinejad is volatile and headstrong, the interlocutor from hell, while Moussavi is steady and measured.

Shrugging away these distinctions like a dispassionate professor at a time when people are dying in the streets of Iran is no way to honor this phrase in his Inaugural Address: “Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”

I admire Mr. Cohen and I can only imagine how one’s heart must stir reporting from the ground in Teheran these past weeks. But I must dissent from this caricature-like portrayal of an almost hapless, Adlai Stevenson like Obama speaking ineffective, academic-sounding sweet nothings from the sidelines. Nor was I as outraged by Obama mentioning that Moussavi’s policies—particularly on aspects of international policy to include the nuclear dossier—might not be hugely different than Ahmadi-Nejad's. Mr. Cohen can describe Ahmadi-Nejad as “Mr. Nuclear”, but Mr. Moussavi was essentially present at the creation of that program, and will not simply agree to junk Iran’s nuclear program, far from it. Indeed, he would arguably find it harder to make significant concessions here than Ahmadi-Nejad, with many hard-line clerics and others badgering him for any concessions from his right. And at the end of day, unless we are literally living a revolution as I write this that will unseat the Supreme Leader himself, let us recall he is ultimately the man who makes decisions on matters of maximal import like the nuclear issue. All this said, of course I would prefer Moussavi in power, the atmospherics surrounding the substance of the negotiations would improve, and this is not negligible. And to have an end to the noxious Holocaust questioning by Ahmadi-Nejad would certainly be very welcome. Not least, the people in Iran would have renewed hope for their future on myriad levels regarding the domestic policy front. But again, to side too openly with Moussavi is only to help the more reactionary elements!

Last, in comments to my own earlier post on Iran, there is a commenter who advocates more action, but more shrewdly, more here from a realist posture. This is perhaps the most compelling commentary I’ve seen advocating for a more proactive U.S. stance (though ultimately I remain unconvinced):

The Obama administration may not be able to prevent any of this. What it can do is take advantage of the political problems the Iranian regime has brought on itself. This doesn't just mean deploring violence and expressing admiration for large peaceful demonstrations. It should also mean pointing out the things that helped make undermine Ahmedinejad domestic popularity -- for example, his incompetence in managing economic policy -- and which America had nothing to do with. It should mean noting the divisions among senior Iranian clerics, some of whom were major figures in the revolution and who have called the election results illegitimate. It should above all mean depicting Iran's ruling powers as the people seeking trouble inside Iran and out. A month ago this would have been impossible. Right now it's imperative. There is some risk in the current situation for the United States, but there is more opportunity. A regime hostile to this country has put the ball on the ground; it's fine to look around long enough to figure out where the ball is, but the Obama administration needs to pick the damned thing up.

But I ask this commenter, what will our highlighting “divisions among senior Iranian clerics” do for the protestors on the ground, and the larger reform movement? Or even remonstrating Ahmadi-Nejad for having an incompetent economic policy (we here in the U.S. are running a spectacular one, of course!). And what of this commenter’s contention that: “(i)t should above all mean depicting Iran's ruling powers as the people seeking trouble inside Iran and out.” Haven’t we been doing this, already, for years and years, indeed, a score and half? And what a wondrous policy it has been, highly effective too! So I’m happy to “figure out where the ball is”, and “pick the damned thing up”, but in what specific manner, and to what specific ends?

At the end of the day there are issues of major national import, to include the Arab-Israeli peace process (see Hamas/Hezbollah), the nuclear issue, Iraq, Afghanistan, and more, that we need to discuss with the Islamic Republic of Iran. I ask you, can we afford to put aside any dialogue for another four long years? If Ahmadi-Nejad prevails, and we engage in a a strong, sustained condemnation of this regime, won’t we risk essentially closing the door to any discussions, and thereafter, essentially being on a war-footing? Is this good for us? For the Iranian people? For the region? The world? True, the carnage could reach such proportion we conclude a major suspension of possible talks is in order. As of this hour, we are all taking in the already grotesque, and possibly growing carnage in Iran. We are deeply repulsed and saddened, but we must exert caution admist these horrific events.

Meantime, some Europeans, notably the French perhaps most stridently so far, are screaming from the roof-tops about the election (which, hate to say and still at this late hour, none of us, I don't think, know for absolutely sure was rigged, or if so, to what extent), but as Philip Stephens points out in the FT, the Europeans are of course chomping at the bit in “inverse proportion to their willingness to act”, given the ultimate fecklessness we are drearily accustomed to when it comes to EU foreign policy, despite the frequent, merrily entertaining show-boating. Congress too is in a brewing tizzy, passing resolutions as a matter of great urgency (was it Molly Ivins who once quipped she could always tell when the Texas legislature was in session because every village in the state reported its idiot missing?). None of this hapless jaw-boning is surprising, of course, but it's worth noting only to point out none of it is helping the protestors on the ground any, and could yet come to hurt them.

No matter. As the blood flows in the streets of Teheran, the pressure will continue to build on the Obama Administration to do something more. Make no mistake, if a Tiananmen style crackdown ensues, we must condemn it, and loudly. We must reappraise the timing and manner of going forward negotiations. Iran policy will need to be re-calibrated on multiple fronts. And I will be even less hopeful for any going forward diplomatic successes, with an increasingly sclerotic, repressive, insecure regime hanging on now well beyond its time. But we should not be, in a fit of ennobled but deeply misguided passion, engaging in actions like having President Obama directly contact Moussavi, or delivering a taped message to the Iranian people, and so on. For these actions will be turned on the backs of the people like the young woman massacred in cold blood today, and in short order. While those here advocating something be done might feel morally superior as they spout such prescriptions from the comforts of far-away New York and Washington, the greater blood likely to be spilled should such policy routes be followed will be on their conscience, not those of us counseling against such shallow recklessness masquerading as plausible foreign policy.

Last, to answer this tortured woman’s hauntingly beautiful query which is the subject line of this post, ‘where is this place that we are only screaming to the world with our silence’? It is, to be sure, a horrible place tonight, but let her and us seek some solace in knowing that the behavior of the ruling Mullahs today will ultimately likely help precipitate the death of this regime, if not immediately, with the passage of some time. And, ironic and hard to accept during this emotional time as it may be, we will hasten that time likely by doing less, rather than more. Again, an edict to keep in mind here: first, do no harm. The President, I believe, understands this. Hopefully more of his fairer critics will too in the coming days, which will be highly charged ones, I know.

MORE: My quick takes on Obama's statement here.

Posted by Gregory at 04:21 PM | Comments (10)

June 17, 2009

The Situation in Iran

Before turning to a brief analysis of some possible scenarios in Iran going forward, let us begin by acknowledging none of us (really, it is true!) can genuinely know what exactly is happening in Iran now several days into this remarkable crisis. Iranian politics have always been tremendously opaque, and the situation unfolding now, despite so evocative, hugely moving scenes we are all witnessing through the vistas of blogs, YouTube, and Twitter (indefatigably being collated with unparalleled passion, at least in the U.S. blogosphere, by Andrew Sullivan), is no exception. No one can yet say definitively, for instance, that Ahmadi-Nejad didn’t win the election, even comfortably. This is not to say he might not have won by a much smaller margin, but regardless we cannot know with certitude as of this writing. On the other hand, it is possible that Mir Hossein Mousavi took this election by a mammoth land-slide, and this was the most brazen electoral theft and effective coup d’etat we have yet to witness in the new millennium. Again, we cannot know with unimpeachable definitiveness either way or whether even it was more an outcome somewhere in between, as is likelier.

Still, we can strive for some educated analyses and/or guesses, despite some of our strong suspicions arising only from what is more by way of circumstantial evidence, at this stage, than concrete determinative fare. The fact, for instance, that Mr. Mousavi is of Azeri background does render his relatively weak performance in certain Azeri areas of Iran suspect (if not a slam-dunk case of foul play, as has been pointed out not unfairly here, as Ahmadi-Nejad speaks Azeri quite well, has served on behalf of some of these provinces, and has proven a skilled campaigner with this population segment on occasion). Ditto some of the strong Ahmadi-Nejad polling numbers in the larger, urban centers raise suspicion. Analysts like Juan Cole, among others, have made reasonably strong cases here, to include debunking some the related notion of some massive schism as between North versus South Teheran, say, with Karim Sadjadpour making similar points. And yet, as credible and recent polling data showcase, Ahmadi-Nejad has, like it or not, continued to enjoy strong support among large swaths of the Iranian polity, though here too, Gary Sick makes the very fair point the poll in question was taken somewhat in advance of the purported Mousavian Green Wave (or was it a “surge”, that word again?). Then there is as well the sense that much of Iran’s youth would be far less inclined to vote for Ahmadi-Nejad, but here again, the record is mixed as this op-ed (related to above linked poll) discusses.

My point? Not only are Iranian politics notoriously byzantine, but parsing these electoral tea-leaves is no simple matter. All the above being said, however, my gut and heart and yes, even head, tell me this election, if not stolen, was a whole lot closer than the regime tried to have interested parties believe, at minimum (though I must confess sometimes I think Ahmadi-Nejad might have, only just, eked out a slight victory, though the ostensible gross rigging should render any such victory, had it even occurred, null and void, at least in any equitable system). And while Iranian elections have always been subject to such machinations, there was something here that smelled too brazen and over-the-top, not only to us here in the arm-chair classes sitting in far-away Manhattan and Georgetown, but much more important, to many thousands if not millions on the ground itself, living daily this tumult, contributing apparently to a quite persuasive feeling among many on the street that the regime was treating them like credulous, half-asleep ‘sheep’.

Why was this handled so ham-handedly, one wonders? While speculative, this is perhaps because some of the more ultra-conservative key Governmental interests were possibly seeing in the late-breaking electoral momentum a material and rapid up-tick in Mousavi’s support, and not least given the seeming ‘color revolution’ undertones (or counter-revolutionary, I guess), through the resultant over-reaction, gamed the election far too crudely (one senses the street protests would have been less massive and protracted, after all, the worst such disturbances in Iran since the 1979 Revolution itself, had the more typical Persian penchant for subtler action been taken, via say Ahmadi-Nejad only the victor by a thin margin, even if fraud were suspected, rather than this far cruder spectacle that seems for well too many to have appeared a grossly large-scale, overly blunt, and particularly galling gaming of the results).

Beyond this, one can’t help feeling that, mostly perhaps as a result of the sheer demographics of the mushrooming youth quotient in Iran, there is increasing fatigue with the now 30 year old Islamic Revolution, so that something profound has changed in the country. Put colloquially, there appears to be, certainly in large swaths of towns like Teheran, Isfahan and Shiraz, a collective shriek emanating: "enough, basta, no more”! Indeed, one senses real fear among some harder-right quarters of the regime, despite the Supreme Leader’s brave face on ‘divine victory’ and Ahmadi-Nejad’s smug (but still somewhat nervous) body language of late. Indeed, it was very revealing to witness the Supreme Leader’s abrupt volte-face with the recount ordered (albeit only a partial one) by the Guardian Council, if of course we can be far less sure of how transparent such a soi disant recount will prove. In short, we are sensing here an increasingly sclerotic regime, growing clumsy in this new age of Twitter and Facebook, being forced to back-track some after what was likely a gross over-reach born of these growing insecurities.

What of the road ahead? Very likely this recount is just a ploy for time, with elements in the regime hoping the streets quiet after the immediacy of the purported mass fraud fades. We know already they will begin complaining of “foreign” elements intruding on the election, the better to unleash false bogey-men and help fan the flames for a greater clamp-down (this despite the Obama Administration’s quite expert balancing act so far—imagine Sarah Palin weighing in on Meet the Press!--albeit I am not sure I would have personally had State Department officials, even junior ones, reaching out to Twitter and asking them to push back a regularly scheduled maintenance, as while apparently a routine, not hugely controversial intervention, it could nonetheless become fodder for propagandists in Teheran, but perhaps I am making too much of this). Also, overly strong allegations by too many international powers that electoral modalities were corrupt (at least without better proof) will serve to render more defensive a regime already quite insecure, which in turn could lead to much more bloodshed if a wider crackdown is ordered, so again, I would caution mostly silence be our watchword as events play out here (absent some Tiananmen scenario in Teheran, at which time all bets are off and we must be very clear in our denunciations, though alas, perhaps not wholly cut off the prospects of a re-positioned negotiation track on issues critical to our national security sometime in the future), as this is a matter in the main for the Iranian polity to sort out, not us here, despite the so justifiable passion these profound events cause many of us witnessing important, and often inspiring, history.

While we will all doubtless monitor these twists and turns in the coming days and weeks (other possible scenarios include a power-sharing arrangement coming out of a recount, with Ahmadi-Nejad and Mousavi sharing key portfolios, or far less likely, a huge retreat by the regime handing the election, on further reflection--or recount, so to speak--to Mousavi), one thing appears certain, there is a confluence of new elements in Iranian society (not only youth and students, but some in clerical, labor and security circles) that do not necessarily owe any profound allegiance to Ayatollah Khamenei, so that one espies something of a generational struggle underway, with an acute desire for greater change gaining strength among many (to be sure current players like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, reportedly caucusing with some key clerical actors possibly minded to be anti-Ahmadi-Nejad, or nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, so far evidently continuing to signal fealty to Khamenei, remain key actors in all this, meaning veterans on the scene are certainly playing their roles too).

And while Mousavi would toe the nuclear line pretty much every bit as hard as has and would still Ahmadi-Nejad (let us not forget this amidst all the dramatic events), on wide-ranging domestic policies, and at least the atmospherics surrounding Iran's international diplomacy, a material change would result, though any dialogue w/ the U.S. would remain very hard slogging. Regardless, none of us have a crystal-ball, and cannot know yet how these events will unfold, whether a dramatic dimunition in some fashion of Ahmadi-Nejad's power (and thus Khamenei's, despite whatever face-saving measures would be employed), or more depressing, a return to some variant of the status quo ante.

Still, something has changed, permanently, and it appears the days of the Islamic Revolution, at least in its current increasingly outdated, reactionary form, might well be numbered, with Mousavi and the social forces he’s unleashed something of a Thermidorian reaction, against the excesses of Ahmadi-Nejad’s overly aggressive international stances which have caused significant isolation, crude populist policies that have proven, in the main, economically self-defeating, and increasingly belligerent and dismissive domestic postures, causing ever growing resentments to fester and now erupt. To allow this positive process to take further root, my strong instinct again to stress is that we resist very much here in the U.S. cheerleading sharper epingles being aimed at the Supreme Leader from President Obama’s bully pulpit (for make no mistake, criticism of the handling of election is direct criticism of him), lest this back-fire on us, or worse, the people bravely protesting on the streets.

Last, and I hope related so as not to be tangential, just a few words on the raging debate in the blogosphere. I have seen friends and/or writers with whom I very often agree, notably Andrew Sullivan and George Packer, deride Flynt Leverett (and his wife Hillary Mann, whom full disclosure I am acquainted with) as “Ahamadinejad’s useful idiot” (Andrew), or accusing that their widely read op-ed is rife with “perverse interpretations, narrow legalisms, and ill-informed suppositions” (George). Perhaps the unfortunately shallow, cheaply provocative title of their op-ed helped lead to such broad-sides "Ahmadinejad won. Get over it", but I must say, I find it highly unfair to compare the Leveretts' in the same breath as, say, the execrable Marty Peretz, as George seems to here. The true villains, when it comes to Western bloviators, are those only too happy to see Ahmadi-Nejad win as it keeps the ‘narrative’ dumbed-down for facilitating the objectives of the ‘bomb Iran’ crowd, and they are quite a few of them, or somewhat related, assorted merry ignorants chastising Obama for having bungled his “3 A.M. moment”, not only getting the advisable policy prescription so deathly wrong, but also, to boot, resurrecting a particularly moronic portion of the recent campaign, which one might have hoped would have better been relegated to the dust-bin.

Posted by Gregory at 12:47 PM | Comments (11)

June 04, 2009

Obama in Cairo

Barack Obama’s speech today in Cairo was a significant feat of public diplomacy, if not a great speech for the ages, say one where myriad lines will be quoted in depth many score years from now. Nor will it change the course of history, or even perhaps, materially alleviate anytime soon the deep divides and suspicions that have caused such tensions between the Western and Muslim worlds of late. But it was a very honest speech, in the main, and a very serious speech, one that not infrequently flirted with a certain impactful majesty of spirit, with its almost youthful optimism and earnest sincerity. And so it is a speech that must be applauded as representing the better angels of our collective human strivings towards continued progress.

The speech was interrupted some forty times with applause, and this by an audience well pre-disposed to be skeptical and cautious, but how could they not on occasion show their enthusiasm? Here was Barack Hussein Obama deftly employing (and pronouncing quite well!) words and phrases that did not emit easily—if at all—from many of his predecessors’ lips: salaam aleikum, the Qur’an, peace be unto them, zakat (though as Roula Khalaf points out in the FT, there was a small glitch to this seeming fluency when he referred to the hijab as the "hajib"). And while Mr. Obama was careful to reinforce his Christian bona fides, there stood a man in Cairo whose own father was not only from that very continent, but also of Muslim lineage. Even with such a gifted speech-maker as this President, there are times when the symbolism of the moment itself—a young, charismatic African-American President of part Muslim ancestry showcasing dignified respect to his hosts on a grand, international stage--transfixes perhaps more than the actual words being spoken.

But there were many words too. The speech ran just a few minutes shy of an hour, not atypical for Obama, but not a short foray either. It had as its main substance and center-piece some seven issues that Obama announced to the Muslim world “we must finally confront together”. These issues, violent extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, the rights of woman, and economic development, were book-ended by, at first, a scene-setting respectful ode to the host country and Islam, and to conclude, an impassioned cry for peaceful co-habitation among the world’s three great monotheistic faiths, that ‘we do unto others as we would have them do unto us’, this maxim eloquently described as “a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions”.

The early applause lines were perhaps obvious crowd-pleasers, but they were nonetheless highly effective in extending the hand of mutual respect and understanding. After the traditional greeting and mention of the Qu’ran, the next applause came when Obama allowed that Islam “carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment,” followed by more applause when Obama allowed that “Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality”. In short, the message was (put bluntly): we understand and appreciate your rich history and contributions to civilization, and that you are not all terrorist-abiding evil-doers. It is true that President George Bush had occasionally expressed such sentiments, notably at a Washington DC mosque not long after 9/11, but uttered by him the lines too often felt like bromides, place-holders, throw-aways, spoken by Obama, with more carefully chosen substance and specifics, the effect was realer, more dignified, even elegant.

The core content of the speech however contained no dramatic new policy directions. On the first issue of violent extremism (the word "terrorism" went purposefully unmentioned), the gathered listeners in Cairo were told we were going to well slog it out in Afghanistan (at times it felt as if almost in Pakistan too), a decision I believe the President will ultimately regret, even with his ballyhooed coalition of “forty-six countries" (sound familiar?). On Iraq an almost mea culpa like tone could be detected (of course on behalf of the prior Administration, and not his own), although Obama nonetheless stated he believed the “Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein”. And, welcome as it is, it is not new news that he has outlawed torture, and ordered the shuttering of Dick Cheney’s noxious penitentiary in the ‘tropics’ of Guantanamo.

On the Arab-Israeli front, the content was reasonably predictable, but not necessarily boiler-plate either. It was note-worthy in itself that Israel-Palestine was the second issue Obama tackled (immediately after violent extremism), notably before the Iranian nuclear dossier. But this emphasis too is not new, by appointing a respected veteran like George Mitchell as Special Envoy, we well knew already that Obama realizes this issue is a paradigmatic one through the region that must be remedied if material, and sustainable, progress is to be made region-wide towards greater stability. Many on both sides of the conflict will be unhappy with aspects of this portion of the speech, Gazans who heard only of “humanitarian” challenges, and not the brutal carnage of a few short months ago, some Israelis on the settlements issue. There will also be some frustration that so-called ‘final status’ issues like Jerusalem and right of return were not discussed in any depth, but all told, and given the overall political realities this President faces, I found it a reasonably adroit balancing act, signaling he was intent to deliberately pursue a serious peace process (and so, for example, final status issues can be broached later after more preparatory work, though I'm far from sure this incremental approach is ideal, as it provides arguably too much opportunity to scuttle forward progress by varied spoilers), in sharp contrast to the deep bungling of this portfolio by the previous Administration. And if some might have felt rumblings of discomfort that discussion of ‘shooting rockets at sleeping children’ was too crudely aimed as a moral criticism of only one side (regarding Obama’s point about the surrender of moral authority), overall again, and given the growing tension of late between Tel Aviv and Washington, the middle-ground Obama forged was ultimately more an umpire-like demand, delivered in reasonably soothing, pragmatic, almost professorial tones (albeit with hints of admonishment), that both sides adhere better to the Road Map (no panacea, of course, but the Administration has yet to unveil dramatic new initiatives). We might have done well worse than that, at least as a starting point.

The discussion of Iran will cause much debate too, but it seemed to me to have been drafted with a good deal of conscientiousness, again with the overriding goal of showing mutual respect (interestingly, Obama used the phrase “played a role” both to discuss U.S. involvement in the Mossadegh coup, as well Iranian “acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians”). This parallelism I suspect was meant as tacit acknowledgment that both sides had committed acts causing anger and even revulsion to the other, but accompanied by a renewed offer to look forward, not backwards. And yet, the answer to Obama’s statement "I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not”, namely that he is “hopeful” that “all countries in the region” will “share in…[the] goal” of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, somehow I believe this will ring somewhat hollow in parts of Teheran. So the issue isn’t going to simply disappear, and again, no particularly new policy ground was broken here. Last, while it was in another part of the speech, Obama issued a powerful retort to much of Ahmadi-Nejad's blustery and cheap Holocaust rhetoric, a counter-point that will be further reinforced during his visit to Buchenwald tomorrow.

The speech risked meandering some after the ‘Big Three’ of, essentially, terrorism, Israel/Palestine and Iran, but even if at times one almost felt risking being subjected to an overly long laundry list a la State of the Union type addresses (digitize records, grow new crops, eradicate polio, science envoys, an entrepreneurship summit, and so on); there were still very effective lines interspersed within, as when Obama with subtleness ceased with the chest-beating American exceptionalism we far too often hear and spout, while still speaking legitimately to basic values of human dignity, stating that issues like the rule of law, equal administration of justice, transparency of Government, etc. were “not just American ideas, they are human rights," at which point the crowd peeled into its near thirtieth round of spontaneous applause.

In closing, after discussing the above mentioned seven issues, Obama painted his vision thus:

The issues that I have described will not be easy to address. But we have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world that we seek -- a world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God's children are respected. Those are mutual interests. That is the world we seek. But we can only achieve it together.

Barack Obama speaks often of “mutual interests”. It is his inner Kennan, or Scowcroft. But this is no caricature of a cold-hearted realist looking solely at balancing state actors, reveling in Metternichian realpolitik. He has a passion for human improvement, a refined intellect, and high ideals. He speaks with eloquence, equanimity, and respect. Fundamentally, he is an optimist, one who looks forward (even if some of us wished he didn't quite so much on occasion). And so he really went to Cairo I think in his mind to help put a line under the past (arguably of course a conceit this is even achievable, but nonethless a laudable goal, particularly given some of the recent gross excesses of the Bush era), so as to beckon us to follow “God’s vision” that we “live together in peace,” in turn concluding his speech stating we make this our “work here on Earth.”

These are noble sentiments, but translated into the gritty environs and heavy baggage of this regional cauldron, they seem quite possibly quixotic and far-fetched. But we should allow ourselves at least enough faith to hope to be surprised by the results an Obama Administration might deliver. The President chose to go to Cairo too, ultimately, as a pragmatist, to extend a hand of mutual respect and comity in the very heart of the Arab Islamic world (after all, he could have given this speech in, say, Jakarta or Istanbul), so as to help ready the region to forge more fertile ground towards conflict prevention and resolution, all the while stressing the need for a collaborative approach. If there is much hard work ahead, I hope one can credit Obama this: he must know that poetical yearnings, even those purposefully crafted towards achievement of specific tactical objectives (such as short-term enhanced regional atmospherics), must nonetheless increasingly turn as the days pass to the hard decisions of actual governance and real-time crisis management. All this still awaits, but if an edict in this mine-field strewn arena might well be 'first, do no harm', this was accomplished by Obama today, even some good.

Posted by Gregory at 11:42 PM | Comments (12)

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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