The Timid Emperor

by , June 29, 2009

Especially since this phase of what may yet be a genuine revolution in Iran has left the mullahs in power – though perhaps with divisions more exposed and rawfor now, President Obama has been and will be called a coward, a betrayer of democratic ideals, a timid novice when it comes to protecting and advancing American values and interests. If only he had talked tougher earlier, if only he had declared the U.S. on the side of the insurgents from the outset, if only he had threatened tougher sanctions, people have said and will say, things might have turned out differently. And even if they hadn’t, it would have been a proud moment for an America whose president stood up for freedom.

These criticisms are grossly inappropriate, of course. The U.S. was not about to intervene with force, and not just because we didn’t have instruments of force readily available. Because the U.S. government probably knows less about Iran than it did about Iraq a few months prior to the invasion and has no idea where and how force could be applied fruitfully, tough talk would have given the Iranians a chance to call our bluff and reveal us as a paper tiger. You can quibble with the words Obama chose, but a posture of proclaiming the importance of certain rights while announcing a policy of noninterference with Iran’s internal politics was probably the least bad of the realistically available alternatives.

As Stratfor.com’s George Friedman has pointed out in his cold-bloodedly realistic way, successful revolutions usually happen when significant portions of the security forces go over to the side of the insurrectionists. That hasn’t happened in Iran, although it’s not out of the question that it could happen in the future. But this time around, the Basij and other security forces seemed only too willing to crack heads in the street. The insurrection (such as it is or was) had no consensus leader, and the regime was able, after a few days, to master shutting down various modes of communication, including Twitter to a great extent, thus making the kind of spontaneous organizing apparent in the first few days increasingly difficult. It may be that Obama had decent enough intelligence to have a pretty good idea this would happen, though it wouldn’t have been difficult to guess that this would be the most likely outcome, even without access to secret stuff.

Even so, however, Obama is vulnerable to criticisms that he is not inclined to act forcefully or decisively enough when it comes to Iran and other crises. In part this is because, despite the marked differences in tone and rhetoric between Obama and the Bushlet, their general approach to the place and responsibilities of the United States in the world are remarkably similar. Both think it is the responsibility of the United States to make sure Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons, though they arrive at that point from somewhat different directions. Bush (or McCain) might have been driven more by the desire to deprive an adversary of such resources, while Obama might see non-proliferation as an important goal, with Iran being an especially important and potentially dangerous instance. But both worldviews see keeping nukes out of Iran’s hands as a high-priority objective.

Bush, McCain, and the neocon sofa samurai (thank you, Taki) might see threats and bluster as the most efficacious way to accomplish this goal, while Obamaites and Clintonites might see at least a legitimate try at diplomacy, perhaps backed by the threat of stricter economic sanctions, as more effective. But they share the same goal. And as long as Obama seeks to accomplish it through less bellicose means than a significant portion of the American people and intelligentsia, he will be subject to criticism from that quarter. At the same time, those of us who would like to see not just a less bellicose stance toward Iran but a less bellicose posture by the United States more generally will have to stick a pin in his pretensions from time to time.

For example, the administration is said to be accepting bids for $20 million in grants to entities pledged to work for "democracy and the rule of law" in Iran – a program begun by Bush [.pdf] that Obama has not terminated. To be sure, most of the money will likely go to outfits inside the Beltway who will spend it more on organizational aggrandizement and writing white papers than on anything in the ground in Iran. But it is certainly not be difficult to see this largesse as "meddling."

At the same time, the administration has acknowledged that it is giving money and various kinds of material (and probably materiel) support to the largely fictional government of Somalia – not to go after pirates, but to fight off an insurgent movement that may have links to al-Qaeda. The current approved band of scoundrels used to be evil Islamists feared by Ethiopia, but now they are our faithful friends and allies, or at least a justification for us to inject ourselves more actively in the midst of a complex struggle for dominance few Americans – including, I would warrant, few in the government in a position to advise those actively involved – understand at even a superficial level.

More active intervention in Somalia might turn out badly or well, though badly seems more likely. If it becomes another sinkhole sucking up resources to no good effect, however, that will be another occasion to criticize Obama.

Is there another option available besides assuming that the United States has to be the world’s Big Dog, not able to dictate outcomes with difficult regimes but forever spinning, growling, and occasionally taking bites out of a batch of Chihuahuas nipping at its heels. For several years I have argued that the United States would be considerably safer and probably have more actual influence in the world by using what political scientists call "soft power" and moral influence grounded in exemplary behavior, with a radically different grand strategy toward the world at large.

A policy of strategic non-engagement would have the United States maintain open trade and proper diplomatic relations worldwide, but define its military-security interests as defense of North America – the NAFTA countries – from any threat of invasion or domination by a potentially hostile power. This relatively modest security perimeter would not be all that difficult to defend. Even in an age of intercontinental missiles, it would be extraordinarily difficult to invade and subdue the United States or its neighbors.

It would take a while for countries accustomed to U.S. intervention and meddling – or those calling for U.S. intervention to gain an advantage over some national or regional rival – to get the message that the United States really doesn’t want to dictate outcomes in Africa, the Middle East, or Asia. Once they did, however, the U.S. would be in a more credible position to point out and deplore human rights violations and other morally unacceptable behavior, or even to act as an honest broker on the rare occasions when doing so would facilitate the peaceful resolution of some regional dispute.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the kind of change Obama believes in. He may use more sophisticated locutions than Bush did, he may place more emphasis on "soft power," and he may choose different targets to try to defend or change. But he sees himself, as most recent U.S. presidents have, not just as a functionary hired to see that the laws are faithfully executed in the United States, but as something of a viceroy for the entire world. Too bad. He would be more successful, and make a more lasting contribution to world peace – and not coincidentally, to the gradual (because it’s organic) spread of democratic and republican values, to the emergence of more genuine freedom, even to global prosperity – by moving toward strategic disengagement.

Read more by Alan Bock