As events continue to unfold on the streets of Tehran, the mounting criticism of the Obama administration continues to focus on whether they should maintain a clear distance from the protest movement or get "hands on" in some heretofore ill-defined way. At the moment, the administration is staying cautious, making the case that a heavy American hand in the situation would be taken as meddling and deprive the ginned-up Mousavi movement of the authenticity they need to succeed. Obama's most furtive critics, for their part, are seemingly of the belief that the time is now for some sort of "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" moment, where the United States takes a clear side and, in essence, picks a winner.
I tend to think that the stronger arguments are on the side of a cautious approach, something that Spencer Ackerman articulated quite well yesterday:
Michael Ledeen considers that a green light for direct presidential involvement, writing, "stop pretending to be a sweet innocent, and get in there and fight for people who are dying in the name of our values, and who want to be part of our world." It's an understandable emotional response -- if you're going to get blamed anyway, why not actually get in the fight? -- but it still neglects the actual situation the opposition is in. Consider that if this is going to be a real revolution, it's going to need to convince people that aren't already out in the streets to bandwagon with its arguments. And they'll need to do so by convincing their compatriots that the opposition has a better and more authentic conception of Iranian interests than the regime does. Fewer things could get in the way of growing the movement more robustly than to have the Americans parachute in, even rhetorically, and lend complicating support. Indeed, if Obama were to get involved now, he'd inadvertently validate the regime's misrepresentations. And that would probably cause at least some protesters pause to wonder if they were giving aid and comfort to a traditionally-hostile foreign entity.
I can't help but point out that in a very subtle way, through the backest of back channels, the administration has already signaled their support for the Mousavi-ists in a particularly strong way. The State Department urged to social networking service Twitter to delay a scheduled outage for the sake of Iranian dissidents that were using it.
Yesterday, at the 140 Characters Conference in New York City, my co-panelist Mike Madden of Salon made a very compelling point on this matter that I will attempt to paraphrase. Madden asked the audience to imagine a hypothetical: if the situation were reversed, and supporters of a regime the United States opposed were in desperate need of utilizing a social networking service that was located in the United States to communicate with the outside world, would the State Department have acted in the same way? Surely not. And while Madden admitted that the analogy wasn't perfect, the point he made was clear: the fact that the U.S. government approached a private sector company with no specific corporate interest in a political outcome to provide for one side of a conflict is a significant step. Perhaps even a frightening one: the benevolence of supporting the Iranian dissident movement notwithstanding, it should probably raise larger questions. Is it a good thing to establish a precedent wherein the government exerts key influence on free communication?
Leaving those matters aside, however, I feel very strongly that it's simply impossible to say at this point that the administration has not, in essence, "picked a winner," and made their preferences very clear. And to a certain extent, this is "meddling." But it's a meddling that does not prevent Iran dissidents from maintaining their authenticity.
One last point on this: over the past week, it's become pretty clear to me that there are countless ways to both overblow and underplay the importance of Twitter in relation to this swarming political movement 6,000 miles away. Stateside users have been largely re-tweeting intel from sources on the ground that have revealed themselves to be trustworthy, and they have demonstrated solidarity in all sorts of sentimental ways -- like retinting their Twitter avatars green. In the end, will these efforts truly enable a revolution? Hardly. It's just not in the same ballpark as laying your life on the line for something you believe in. Forget ballpark -- it's not even the same sport.
Nevertheless, I can't help but think that on an interactive level, a message is getting back to the dissidents on the streets of Tehran: The American people are with you. And I like to think this is very important. While the administration's hands are tied with diplomatic realities that prevent them from playing a firm hand of specific support, the American people have picked a winner. And the last time I checked, political power in this nation is supposed to be vested in its people, not in its leaders. They obtain power through us. It's a lesson that Americans need to remember, and the Iranians are working very hard, under brutal conditions, to put into practice.
Why Make A Demagogue's Argument For Him? [Attackerman]