Monday, June 22, 2009

Foolish Criticism

Here's George Will on ABC yesterday calling right wing criticism of President Obama's measured response to the Iranian protest movement "foolish."

George Will's memory might reach back all the way to the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Mine only goes back as far as such events as Czechoslovakia in 1968; Poland in 1981; and China in 1989. All these popular protests were met with savage government repression, which is the phase that we are seeing in Iran right now. In none of these cases did negative worldwide opinion prove much of a deterrent to the government crackdown. The world's disapproval did not stop Russian tanks from rolling into Prague, or stop the government of Poland from instituting martial law, or stop the Chinese government from massacring protesters in Tienanmen Square. In all of these cases, however, popular protests still had the effect of tarnishing the government's legitimacy, and in some cases this led to real change. That also seems to be happening in Iran right now, though this protest movement is still in its infancy. All of these movements were built on and derive the power from, grassroots support, not outside intervention. That seems particularly true in Iran, where the government derives much of its support from demonizing Western nations, particularly the United States.

People who want to second guess what the United States is now doing to help the Iranian democratic movement of 2009 succeed should really think more carefully about the limits of our ability to do that. And about the possibility that our efforts could be counter-productive.


  1. 3 days of silence when it went down didn't help the protesters.

  2. Harrison, don't you think that if the United States had done more to encourage the protesters, instead of merely supporting their right to protest peacefully, the government of Iran would have had more credibility in blaming all of the protests on the United States? (which they're already doing anyway) And when the government of Iran uses the US as a scapegoat, that only helps the government stay in power.

    Isn't it much better that the protests developed spontaneously by the Iranian people themselves? The harder question is what do you do in response to the government crackdown on the protests that is happening now. We sometimes face agonizing choices of how to respond when a foreign government mistreats its own citizens. But in the case of Iran, where we already have no diplomatic relations, and fairly severe sanctions in place, our options for getting tough with the government seem fairly limited. Unless we're ready to start a third war in the Middle East, which even the former administration was not quite prepared to do.

  3. A year later, do you think George Will was right? If yes, what scenario would change your mind? What would you say if Israel was nuked in the next two years? These are largely rhetorical questions, I know, but worth considering.

  4. These are good questions and maybe not so rhetorical, and there are no easy answers. It's interesting that even Fidel Castro in his old age now thinks he has a role to play in the Iran situation, and maybe he could play a constructive role. Are there scenarios in which I would be in favor of a more aggressive response against Iran? The short answer is yes.

    I think my point is still valid, however, which is that the United States has to be very careful about allying itself too strongly with any protest movement in Iran. If we do that, we risk undercutting the effectiveness of that movement because the government will just brand that movement as outside interference by the US. So often it seems in foreign policy that well-intentioned efforts have the opposite consequences from what was intended.