I agree with you, Abe and Jen, about the shift by Obama. I think it’s all to the good. But I do wonder what to make of the arguments he and his supporters have employed during the last week or so. All of those who implored the president to speak up in defense of the forces of liberty were told by Obama and his allies that this was a naïve and counterproductive approach, with some predictably fevered minds over at the Atlantic and Time insisting it was all a neoconservative trap to guarantee war with Iran. “Meddling” into the affairs of Iran, saidith Obama, was a sure way to set us back. But today Obama said (among other things) this:
If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect those rights [the right to assembly and free speech], and heed the will of its own people. It must govern through consent, not coercion. That is what Iran’s own people are calling for, and the Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government.
What is this, if not “meddling”? Why aren’t statements like this – and expressions of Obama’s being “appalled and outraged” at what the Iranian regime is doing – going to be used against the U.S.? In saying what Iran “must” do, how is he not now playing into the narrative he said we had to avoid? Isn’t America the “foil for the Iranian government” that he said we should not become? The concern some of us had early on was that the president should be careful to justify his position by making arguments (we shouldn’t be seen as “meddling” in the internal affairs of Iran) that fall apart under scrutiny.
Obama’s analysis was never correct; now that he appears to have changed his mind, all power to him. But it would be commendable if the man who said early on in his presidency that he would eagerly admit to his mistakes would do just that. It would be nice if he conceded he has recalibrated his approach in light of the facts and determined that his early arguments are now inoperative. But rather than admitting such a thing, Obama insists that he’s been consistent all along, that he is magically immune to the “hothouse of Washington” that everyone else cannot escape, and that unlike so many others, he is not trapped in the “24-hour news cycle” mindset.
The truth is that Obama’s initial position on Iran was cautious and timid, to some degree understandable but also, I think, quite wrong. His worst mistake was in declaring early on that there was no real difference between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi – a statement that now looks misinformed and unwise. It was said by a man who did not seem to fathom that revolutions can shift former alliances and allegiances.
Mr. Obama needed to change his posture and he seems to be doing just that – admittedly only a step at a time. The truth is that the French government and others found their voices before Obama found his. But Obama’s other-worldly self-regard, which may be his besetting sin, will not allow him to admit it. It’s a thin line between self-confidence and arrogance. It seems clear to me which side of the line Obama is on, and I suspect it’ll end up costing him down the road.