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Why Obama Is a Nightmare for Ahmadinejad and Chávez

As Iran stumbles deeper into political crisis, with scores of protestors murdered and likely more deaths coming after Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami declared them "worthy of execution," the Republicans have diligently gone about exercising their best skills and resources to show support for these brave demonstrators - by sharply attacking President Barack Obama.

That's not to say that Obama shouldn't be vigorously criticized by opponents in both parties - that's the role that presidents are supposed to play. However critics would be better off focusing on his soft spots, such as the incoherence on healthcare, flawed climate bill, or transparency issues, as the president has actually displayed pitch perfect instincts so far in handling the challenges of both Iran and the "Shah of Venezuela" Hugo Chávez.

Dealing with these volatile characters requires a careful dance, with new steps displayed every day. As noted by Alvaro Vargas Llosa in the New York Times, the recent coup (or counter-coup) in Honduras is eagerly being seized upon by President Chávez, as he attempts to play the unlikely role as the hero of democracy in Latin America. However this mission is made somewhat more difficult by the fact that there exists a nearly identical consensus between the Obama Administration and the Bolivarian Revolution on the Honduras events. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made clear and strong statements about the need to return to constitutional order, while President Obama described the coup action as illegal.

Although some Republicans will once again resort to their slings and arrows over the initial Honduras policy (and to be fair, President Manuel Zelaya was attempting to dismantle the constitution and illegally extend his rule), the position taken by Washington is the very last thing that Mr. Chávez wanted to see. He likes it no more than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad likes the fact that it is Europe who is coming down hardest on Iran in this crisis, compared to relative moderation of Obama. It makes it harder for both of them to play the conspiracy theory blame game.

There are two reasons why both the authoritarians of Persia and the Orinoco Belt represent a common foreign policy challenge to the United States. Firstly, they both lean upon a brand of populism that is heavily dependent upon an outdated conception of anti-Americanism. They have woven a narrative, backed only by selective scraps of facts combined with myths, that the United States is a hostile, hateful, and aggressive power which is responsible for nearly every social problem of their country. Oh yes, and they also want to invade us, so we had better arm ourselves to the teeth.

This narrative makes for efficient politics and tosses more fuel to the ever growing fires of nationalism, but becomes a harder story to sell when you have an African-American president of an immigrant father with the middle name "Hussein" who is more popular on the streets on Tehran and Caracas than their own angry leaders.

Secondly, I consider Iran and Venezuela together because of their mutually supportive and burgeoning alliance (this has also been pointed out by Moisés Naím). They are cooperating together along with Russia to build a natural gas cartel, they have unregistered flights allegedly bringing scores of Hezbollah members into Latin America, Chávez happily provides Iran with Bolivian and possibly Venezuelan Uranium, while the Venezuelan government even engages in vigorous anti-Semitism to please their friends in Persia and the Middle East (see this interview we recorded with a Jewish student leader who was attacked on state television). Additionally, while Iran maintains a stable of political prisoners such as Behrooz Javid-Tehrani, Chávez is doing his best to copy these tactics with prisoners such as Eligio Cedeño - a case I am directly involved in.

Obama's approach to both Iran and Venezuela takes a sledgehammer to their anti-American narratives, appealing directly to the people by recognizing the points of contention, sometimes even apologizing, before condemning the abuses of the world's autocrats. For Latin America, the doctrine was laid out during the April speech to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, as Obama recognized that in the past Washington had dictated its terms and made bad decisions, but looked a start a new good neighbor policy built upon mutual trust. In Cairo, his speech was even more dramatic, and some would even argue that the current events in Iran would not be happening if it were not for this significant change in rhetoric.

David Bromwich has a review of Obama's Cairo speech along with a review of Leslie H. Gelb's new book in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books which gets right down to the central issue which divides some Republicans and some Democrats on the president's new approach: is anti-Americanism successful as a populist dynamic in Iran and Venezuela because the people hate us for who we are, or for the policies we conduct? Bromwich writes that we shouldn't be so quick to accept the Gelb's Machiavellian argument that anti-Americanism is simply interwoven into international politics and should therefore be ignored:

"For if this is so, it may give the United States carte blanche for any military action whatever; after all, if 'anti-Americanism' is so ingrained, it is possible that nothing we do will make things worse. Gelb has much to say about negotiated outcomes. Yet he allows us to fall back on the perception that these people hate us for what we are. This common and undemanding position relaxes the conscience of the country by awarding us a permanent bill of acquittal. It is essentially a parental message of comfort. Is such a view compatible with citizenship in a democracy?"

Like it or not, past U.S. administrations have at times conducted bad foreign policy in these regions - and memories of these events have been slow to fade away. While certainly the political realities and strategic imperatives which drove these complicated decisions need to be placed in context, we are not going to get very far without addressing grievances and then moving past them.

At the heart of our problems with Iran and Venezuela are the international perceptions of American power and the legitimacy of its use. The violent populists in control of both countries have sought to portray one illustration of the abuses of a unipolar, brute force exercised without consensus or common value. Obama, through his "over-the-head" diplomacy, speaking directly to Iranian and Venezuelan citizens instead of to their leaders, is attempting to challenge these myths and offer a competing, positive vision for relations among nations. Nobody is trying to win a popularity contest here, and it is irrelevant whether or not the United States is liked or admired in conducting successful foreign policy. However, the most effective way to constrain these leaders at the current juncture is by proving through example that they are feeding their own citizens lies about the intentions of the United States, while exposing their instrumentalization of anti-Americanism for what it really is.