Politics & Policy

Obama’s Fantastical Realism

The president is putting human rights behind stability.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is available exclusively through King Features Syndicate. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact: kfsreprint@hearstsc.com, or phone 800-708-7311, ext 246.

If only the Obama administration considered motorcycle-riding thugs beating demonstrators in Iran an offense on par with Israel’s West Bank settlements.

Then it could speak with moral passion. It could unmistakably denounce the killings, and relieve its State Department spokesman of the trouble of dancing around the word “condemn.” It could say that our relationship with the Iranian government depends on the unconditional end of its thuggery. It could explain that only if Iran stops the crackdown can we “move forward” in the Middle East.

But Iran is not an ally of the United States. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gets a rhetorical pass that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t. As hundreds of thousands of Iranian protesters march for democracy, in defiance of a government that is our committed enemy, Pres. Barack Obama resorts to lawyerly equivocations. He labors to avoid saying anything denoting untoward disapproval of the baton-wielding shock troops of Iran’s theocracy.

In a perverse irony, we are witnessing the most serious threat to the Islamic Republic since its establishment, at the same time the first American president explicitly to accept the regime’s legitimacy happens to be in office. Whatever credibility the mullahs have lost in the street, they have picked up in the Oval Office, where the president bizarrely seems less enthusiastic about a change in dispensation in Iran than much of Tehran’s population.

Obama says he wants to avoid stoking a nationalist backlash. A legitimate, but overblown, concern. Iranians surely can understand the difference between the U.S. sending CIA operatives into the country to help stage an anti-democratic coup — as Obama constantly reminds the world we did in the 1950s — and speaking up against repression. Without undue “meddling,” Obama could note that governments in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan honor election results, and exhort Iran to lead the democratic wave rather than resist it.

Obama’s timidity speaks to a guilty conscience. At some level, he buys the post-colonial critique of the West as the root of the developing world’s troubles, and thinks we lack the moral standing to judge non-Western governments that resent and envy us. Obama is perfectly capable of launching moralistic broadsides — just at his own country, especially under his predecessor. Who are we to condemn the abuse of peaceful demonstrators when we waterboarded three terrorists?

And Obama is so dead-set on negotiating with the current regime, he doesn’t want to invest much in the hope of changing it. Obama is often compared to Jimmy Carter, but his approach in Iran is the opposite of Carter’s. Carter was deeply moved by human rights and put the possibility of promoting them above other priorities, such as stability and maintaining an ally in Tehran. Obama is putting human rights behind stability, in the ultimate cause of a prospective bargain with the mullahs.

This isn’t really “realism,” but a stubborn commitment to an illusory belief in the power of talks with an ill-intentioned, reform-resistant dictatorship. Beneath the veneer of its hardheaded distancing from the protesters, Obama’s policy has a goopy, naïve heart.

Whatever wan hope there was that we could talk the Iranian regime out of its nuclear-weapons program is diminishing. The regime doesn’t appear to be in a compromising mood, and Obama’s free pass for the crackdown is likely only to broadcast our weakness and pliability. If there is no cost to violating international norms in crushing flesh-and-blood protesters, why will there be a cost to defying the parchment strictures of the International Atomic Energy Agency?

Obama has gotten a preview of what extending his hand to a clenched fist looks like in North Korea. Six months into the era of Obama’s irenic, world-calming diplomacy, Pyongyang has tested a long-range missile and a nuclear device, and announced it’s going to weaponize its plutonium stock and proceed with a uranium-enrichment program. Kim Jong Il’s family dynasty shows no sign of realizing that the advent of Obama was supposed to change its nature, interests, and behavior.

Why will the mullahs?

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