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16th June 2009 Charles J. Brown
12:13 pm

Obama on Iran, McCain on His High Horse

Here’s Obama’s response to events in Iran.  As Spencer Ackerman notes, just about pitch-perfect:

Now look at what John McCain said in contrast:

DAVID GREGORY: Let’s get right to it on Iran. How does the U.S. deal with an emboldened Iranian President Ahmadinejad?

SENATOR JOHN McCAIN: Well, we lead; we condemn the sham, corrupt election. We do what we have done throughout the Cold War and afterwards, we speak up for the people of Tehran and Iran and all the cities all over that country who have been deprived of one of their fundamental rights. We speak out forcefully, and we make sure that the world knows that America leads - and including increased funding for part of the Farda, Iranian free radio.

Take a moment to think about how the current government in Iran is going to react to this:  McCain, whether he realizes it or not, is reminding them of just what the United States did for to Iran during the Cold War:  support a coup against a democratically elected government in 1953 and from that point until his overthrow in 1979, support the Shah (whose secret police, to use McCain’s own words, systematically “deprived” Iranians of their “fundamental rights” including, I would note, the right to choose their government).

It’s almost as if McCain doesn’t know his history.  Either that, or he continues to look at the world through the blinders of the Cold War.  And while it’s true that In some parts of the world — such as Eastern Europe we were (mostly) champions of what is right and good, including human rights and democracy.** — in other parts (including Iran), the United States was a very significant part of the problem.

In John McCain’s world, we are all Iranians now, just as we were Georgians last summer.

I understand McCain’s instincts:  rooting for the underdog certainly is a good thing, and I would guess that most Americans want the anti-government demonstrators to succeed.  But I think that most Americans also recognize that the United States cannot be perceived by the current government as actively supporting the opposition.  That is exactly what the Ahmadinejad regime wants.  Perhaps more importantly, the Iranians in the streets don’t want vocal U.S. support — they too recognize the danger.

There are many conservatives out there, including Bill Kristol and Patrick Buchanan, who agree with and support Obama’s approach.  Here’s what Buchanan said (via Andrew Sullivan, who continues to provide some of the best coverage out there):

No U.S. denunciation of what took place in Iran is as credible as the reports and pictures coming out of Iran. Those reports, those pictures are stripping the mullahs of the only asset they seemed to possess — that, even if fanatics, they were principled, honest men. . . .

When your adversary is making a fool of himself, get out of the way. That is a rule of politics Lyndon Johnson once put into the most pungent of terms. U.S. fulminations will change nothing in Tehran. But they would enable the regime to divert attention to U.S. meddling in Iran’s affairs and portray the candidate robbed in this election, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, as a poodle of the Americans. . . .

The dilemma for America is that the theocracy defines itself and grounds its claim to leadership through its unyielding resistance to the Great Satan—the United States—and to Israel. Nevertheless, Obama, with his outstretched hand, his message to Iran on its national day, his admission that the United States had a hand in the 1953 coup in Tehran, his assurances that we recognize Iran’s right to nuclear power, succeeded. He stripped the Ayatollah and Ahmadinejad of their clinching argument—that America is out to destroy Iran and they are indispensable to Iran’s defense.

I usually find Buchanan’s views loathsome, but I think he gets it here:  don’t t give the bad guys more fuel, and don’t suggest, as McCain does, that the U.S. should provide more funding to opposition voices.

Michael Cohen over at Democracy Arsenal has a good summation of why McCain’s approach is the wrong one:

Let’s be very clear: what is happening in Tehran is not about us. It’s about the people on the streets risking their lives so that their voices will be heard. If we want to help those people the best thing we can do is speak softly and wait for the drama to play itself out. If we are appearing to take sides and if we are seen as openly supporting the opposition movement we won’t be doing them any good at all. As Spencer Ackerman perceptively notes, “American rhetorical support will immediately become a cudgel in the hands of Ahmadinejad.”

To turn John McCain’s silly argument around, leadership is not simply about beating one’s chest and taking strong moral stands, it’s about listening to those on the ground in Iran and having a nuanced understanding about the impact of American statements in a country where there is no great love [lost] for the United States, particularly among supporters of Ahmadinejad. The course being recommended by. . .McCain would have the ironic of hurting the cause of the people [he is] seeking to support.

Let’s see how long it takes the Ahmadinejad regime to re-broadcast McCain’s remarks.  I give it less than a day.

**The exceptions, of course, being Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968, when we mouthed platitudes in the face of tanks.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 16th, 2009 at 12:13 pm and is filed under American foreign policy, politics, world events. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. 1 On June 16th, 2009, Midwest McGarry said:

    I saw Senator John McCain on the Today show this morning criticizing the Obama Administration’s response to events in Iran. But the sheer audacity and barf-inducing nature of his comments did not hit me until I saw the transcript of his remarks.

    When asked what the United States should be doing about Iran McCain said, “We do what we have done throughout the Cold War and afterwards, we speak up for the people of Tehran and Iran and all the cities all over that country who have been deprived of one of their fundamental rights.”

    As you point out, Charlie…. does anyone remember what we, the good guys, actually did in Iran during the Cold War? Anyone?

    Look, I am no “blame America first” blogger. I know we did some nasty stuff during the Cold War which probably needed to be done. But no one can deny we got into bed with some dictators in the name of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And nowhere was this on display more than in Iran.

    In the early 1950’s, Mohammad Mosaddeq was a very popular (and democratically elected) prime minister of Iran. But British and American intelligence said Mosaddeq was tilting Iran toward the Soviet Union. The West orchestrated a coup. Mosaddeq was out, and the Shah assumed dictatorial powers. The Shah proved to be a reliable ally of the West until he was overthrown in 1979 when the current revolutionary government of Iran came into power.

    If someone wants to defend this as a necessary but unpleasant, undemocratic chapter in a larger battle against global tyranny, fine. But how in the world can a U.S. Senator claim America spent the Cold War as a champion of the fundamental, democratic rights of the Iranian people?


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