Strategic Caution

07/25/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

The President's Critics Can't Tell The Difference Between Weakness And Wisdom

Over the last week, as Iranian demonstrators have inspired the world by taking to the streets in defiance of Iran's authoritarian government, a number of American conservatives have engaged in a cynical campaign against President Obama's foreign policy. These critics have suggested, indeed some have flatly asserted, that by carefully measuring his words so as not to provide propaganda fodder to Iran's hardliners, the president of the United States has "sided with the regime" against the people. This is absurd.

While the demonstrators clearly desire, and have, our solidarity, they have not asked for our intervention. Indeed, the virtually unanimous position of Iranian human rights activists is that U.S. leaders should, while continuing to express support for their political rights, not overtly involve themselves in the process of challenging the regime over the recent elections.

Likewise, the overwhelming consensus of Iran analysts and experts in the United States concur that the president's approach has thus far been pitch perfect. Acknowledging the troubling history of Western interference in Iran's politics, and the deep desire of Iran's hardliners to use this history against the demonstrators, the president has wisely chosen the side of human rights and justice.

But a number of opportunistic politicians and neoconservative pundits have attempted to exploit this moment, and Iran's reform movement, to regain the initiative in an American foreign policy debate that they have been losing badly. Using the same tired charges of "weakness" that they have used for years to disguise their own lack of workable ideas, these critics now demand that the president clumsily wade into the Iranian ferment with as much care and consideration as they demanded George W. Bush wade into Iraq.

It is ironic, to say the least, that the very people whose reckless policies and belligerent ideology have done so much over the last eight years to strengthen Iran's strategic position in the Middle East, as well as bolster hardliners within the Iranian regime itself, should now criticize the president for not being belligerent enough.

It is also telling that none of those attempting to portray the president's well-informed caution as "weakness" have thus far been able, or even attempted, to answer how, exactly, a more aggressive U.S. posture might lead to a better outcome on the ground in Iran. As during the Bush administration, conservatives don't seem to have thought much past the next political battle.

The critics also have a weak grasp of history. In 1956, President Eisenhower encouraged the Hungarian to revolt against their communist government, and then had to watch helplessly as they were crushed. Even more relevantly, in 1991 the first President Bush encouraged Iraqi Shiites to rise up against Saddam Hussein, and then stood by as they were mowed down by Saddam's helicopter gunships. Both of these episodes, in which American rhetoric exceeded America's realistic ability to effect outcomes, were deeply damaging to American credibility.

President Obama has shown that he understands, even if his domestic critics do not, that knowing when not to act, and speak, is as strategically important as knowing when to do so. He sent the protesters a subtle but unmistakable message of support last week, when his State Department asked Twitter to delay its scheduled maintenance, in order to allow the continued use of this technology that has proven so important to enabling communication within and out of Iran.

The time may come for Obama to engage more forcefully on behalf of Iran's reformers. Indeed, Tuesday's condemnation of "the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days" was an appropriate escalation of his rhetoric. But for now the most productive thing the president of the United States can do for Iranian human rights and democracy is to keep the United States, to the extent possible, out of Iran's domestic debate. He shouldn't allow himself to be distracted by those trying to cast his strategic wisdom as "weakness" and their own thoughtless bellicosity as "strength." Thankfully, he's given no indication that he will.