Obama’s Baby Steps

At Last

Finally, an American president has done what no other president has done but all of them beginning with Eisenhower should have. He has admitted the U.S. government’s role in overthrowing a democratically elected prime minister of Iran. President Barack Obama did so on June 4 in Cairo. Obama stated, "In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government."

Operation Ajax

Obama was referring, of course, to the role that the CIA played in fomenting a successful 1953 revolt against Iran’s prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, a role that few Americans know about but all should. I wrote about this in greater length in one of my first Antiwar.com articles, "An Economist’s Case Against an Interventionist Foreign Policy." Two of the Americans most responsible for Operation Ajax, the U.S. government’s plan to overthrow Mossadegh, were the CIA’s Kermit Roosevelt and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr.

Interestingly, the CIA has already admitted its role. Also, in August 2003, in a speech at the Naval Postgraduate School, James Woolsey, former director of the CIA under Clinton, all but admitted the CIA’s role. Woolsey claimed in his speech that the U.S. war with militant Islam had begun in November 1979, when some Iranians took over the U.S. embassy. But in the question period, I asked him whether he didn’t think it might have begun in 1953, when the CIA helped depose Mossadegh. Laughing, Woolsey replied that, as Winston Churchill said, when it came to the Middle East, the Americans, after doing many wrong things, would always end up doing the right thing. In other words, Woolsey seemed to admit CIA complicity.

Obama vs. Carter and Bush I

Contrast President Obama’s honest admission of the U.S. role with Jimmy Carter’s famous dismissive statement shortly after the U.S. embassy in Tehran was captured in 1979. Carter maintained that the U.S. government’s successful 1953 attempt to restore the shah of Iran to power was "ancient history." Have you ever taken an ancient history course? Do you recall discussing events that occurred just 26 years earlier? As Carter well knew, the U.S. government’s overthrow of Mossadegh was not ancient history; it was modern history.

Also contrast Obama’s statement with what then-vice president George H.W. Bush is alleged to have said in 1988 after the USS Vincennes, traveling in Iranian waters, shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing all 290 people on board. According to Newsweek, Bush said, “I’ll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever, I don’t care what the facts are.” Incidentally, a Navy officer I taught a few years ago, who was a U.S. Navy enlistee in 1988, told me that, shortly after the 1988 event, his ship pulled into the same port in the Middle East where the USS Vincennes was moored. He saw sailors from the Vincennes wearing T-shirts showing a downed Iranian airliner and women’s and babies’ bodies floating in the water. How’s that working out for us?

Obama’s Hypocrisy

I dislike many things about Obama’s policies. Start with his nationalization of General Motors while protesting that he doesn’t want to run auto companies. Then, consider his serious advocacy of giving the government the power to suspend habeas corpus and keep suspects in indefinite detention. And notice that both policies continue where President George W. Bush left off (here and here), despite Obama’s almost-constant protestations that he wants to break with the "past eight years."

Look, also, at Obama’s hypocrisy on foreign policy, a hypocrisy evidenced in that selfsame June 4 speech in Cairo. Obama stated:

"Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered."

Obama insists that Palestinians must abandon violence, but, of course, he has no intention of doing so, as his actions in Afghanistan have demonstrated.

As the late Murray Rothbard might have said, "That statement should get a horse laugh." And it did. I first read the above paragraph from Obama’s speech on the Web site of Berkeley economics professor and former Clinton administration economist Brad DeLong. DeLong apparently liked it, labeling the paragraph, "The guy can talk." DeLong, as many in the economics blogosphere know, is notorious for deleting comments from his blog that call him out. He must have given up because commentator after commentator takes issue in his comments section. My favorites were the first two. Mark R. wrote:

"And yet the guy wants to send more troops to Afghanistan. Were he honest, he would have said violence is not for the relatively powerless."

And Chris Simonds wrote:

"Very stirring. Will he now read that lecture to the CIA, our armed forces, and the American public? We too, with our bombers and drones, are firing rockets at sleeping children and blowing up whole families. If those wars in other countries are so important to us, we should be willing to put our bodies over there for years, and risk death for years, just as Iraqis, Pakistanis, and Afghans have been forced to do. Otherwise, we just want cheap triumphs by remote control. How are we in any way superior to the terrorists? Both sides have seen no way but violence to achieve their ends."

So let’s admit that President Obama has a huge bulls**t problem. He loves to say things without, apparently, having any intention of doing them, whether it be his stated intention to get the U.S. troops out of Iraq or his promise not to hire lobbyists.

Baby Steps

Why, then, do I give him credit for admitting the U.S. government’s role in Iran? Just for that. Admitting that role is a big deal in light of the fact that no previous president did so. President Obama took baby steps. But compared to those preceding him, they were giant steps. Of course he should get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Italy and Germany, for that matter. But you can be sure that the neocons will hammer him for admitting the U.S. government’s role in Iran and will accuse him of "apologizing for America." So we need to support him when he takes baby steps. If he gets no support, he’ll be less likely to take such steps again.

Copyright © 2009 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at http://econlog.econlib.org