The Corner

Opposition and Accountability

Over at The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol writes this:

There have been very good grounds to criticize President Obama’s foreign policy so far. There will be much more to criticize over the next three and a half years.

But he is our president. We could be at an historical inflection point in Iran. The United States may be able to play an important role. The task now is to explain what the Obama administration (and Congress) should be saying and doing, and to urge them to do what they should be doing. Presuming ahead of time that Obama will fail to exercise leadership, and cataloguing this episode pre-emptively as another in a list of Obama failures, would be a mistake. The U.S. has a huge stake in the possible transformation, or at least reformation, of the Iranian regime. If there’s some chance of that happening, and some chance of U.S. policy contributing to that outcome, we should hope Obama does the right thing, and urge and pressure him to do so–because then the United States will be doing the right thing, and the United States, and the world, will benefit.

This too is the role of a loyal opposition

I agree; and I would add several points to what Kristol said. The first is that we’ll know soon enough whether Obama does the right thing or not, perhaps beginning as early as today. The president has a couple of opportunities to speak out publicly about what’s going on in Iran; I hope he finds within himself the strength and moral convictions to give support to the voices of reform and protest within Iran. In his Cairo speech, Obama had words of support for democracy and the rule of law. This is a perfect opportunity for him to demonstrate he meant what he said. For him to downplay what is happening in Iran in order to attempt to get into the good graces of the ruling powers would, I think, be wrong and unwise. And Obama’s tendency to split differences and find merit and failure on all sides (other than his) won’t cut it.

Second, it is too early to pre-judge what will happen in Iran. It may well be that the voices of opposition are crushed; tragically, that is often what repressive regimes do to those who challenge their ways. On the other hand, the protests are clearly more than a one-day event. Something deep is astirring in Iran. The fact that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ordered an investigation into claims of vote rigging is itself evidence that the Iranian regime is feeling pressure. That is true even if the “investigation” is as fraudulent as the vote itself (it would be impressive if Obama urged for independent observers be brought in to examine the level of corruption that occurred). Sometimes democratic revolutions emerge in unlikely ways and in unlikely places, with unlikely outcomes. This is a fluid moment in Iran, and a potentially important one.

Third, it appears that the “freedom agenda” is making a comeback. A lot of people — including in the Obama administration — distanced themselves from support for democratic movements and free elections in the Middle East. This struck me as a mistake at the time, and ultimately unsustainable. It’s true enough that elections are not a sufficient condition for self-rule and humane regimes; but they are a critical component of them. And the longing for repressed people to be free is powerful; America at its best gives support to those who are on the side of liberty and human rights.

This is an early test for Obama. Let’s hope he’s up to it; and by all means let’s hold him accountable for what he says and what he does. 


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