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What’s Really Dead? “Realism” on Iran

Only two days ago a wide range of pundits were praising President Obama for his refusal to take a strong stand on the situation in Iran.

At the Daily Beast, veteran foreign policy “realist” Leslie Gelb complimented the president for his refusal to embrace the street protests or to express outrage over the situation. Gelb thought Obama was wise to ignore the neocons and “leave Iran to the Iranians,” lest a presidential statement tarnish the demonstrators as tools of America.

On the same day on the same site, veteran leftie Eric Alterman took an interestingly similar stance,  mocking neoconservatives such as Charles Krauthammer’s and Robert Kagan’s criticism of the president for, as Alterman put it, “not force-feeding Iran their democracy.” For Alterman, the whole idea of the United States taking a strong stand on the bloodshed in the streets of Tehran was just a wacky neocon theory, deeply reminiscent of the prelude to the war in Iraq, which he then rehearsed at length. Conveniently, Alterman omits the ultimate outcome of the war, which to date has produced a flawed and shaky but still coherent democracy that right now may look pretty good to those living under the thumb of the ayatollahs.

Indeed, Alterman thought the whole idea of Americans expecting their president to articulate a moral stance on a crucial foreign-affairs issue to be so laughable that he predicted that the dust-up over Obama’s failures on Iran means that neoconservatism will soon be as dead as Marxism. And considering that Alterman has spent a good deal of his career flaking for the legacy of the late Stalinist spy I.F. Stone, he may be presumed to be an expert on the subject of the death of Marxism.

These were just a couple of the pundits who blasted whomever who had the temerity to ask their president to start behaving like a leader. In the view of many realists, leftists and a few renegade Republicans who defy classification (such as former congressman and current MSNBC gabber Joe Scarborough who may fancy himself as a future leader of the GOP), Obama was right to stay mum.

But, lo and behold, after ten days of milquetoast releases on Iran, the president decided to significantly raise the temperature on the subject yesterday by making exactly the kind of strong statement his critics had been begging for all week. And what was the reaction from all those who had been saying that his refusal to do so was an indicator of his cool wisdom? Nothing much.

The Washington Post editorial page claimed that the president was not yielding to those who had blasted his “softness” even though that is exactly what he had just done. Instead, the Post pretended that Obama was finding his own middle way to avoid repeating what they think is the mistake of the Bush administration in trying to isolate Iran (though, in fact, Bush’s team significantly backed away from a tough Iran policy in his last year in office). Other neocon bashers seem either silent or in a similar state of denial about Obama’s flip. Like the White House spinners, they are merely pretending nothing has happened.

What does all this prove? That after taking a beating on the issue, Obama accepted that the so-called “realist” policy of engaging Iran is simply unacceptable to an American people that seem curiously susceptible to ideas like support for democracy and freedom abroad, even though such neoconservative notions were supposedly dead. Obama may still hope to one day engage Ahmadinejad rather than deal with the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons and terrorism at home and abroad, but he can’t afford to be branded an appeaser or enabler of that regime even if that’s what his realist and left-wing fans want.

Obama is still a popular president and, given his keen political instincts, may remain so despite his obvious failings. But the events of the last two weeks have shown that the only ideological corpse on display is the realist foreign policy on Iran that he had embraced to applause from the same pundits who are mum about his switcheroo.


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