I Preferred Obama's Initial Take on Iran

"President Obama yesterday abandoned the restrained tone he had maintained in recent days in discussing the unrest in Iran."

That's unfortunate.  I must admit I disagreed with Sen. John McCain in his calls over the past week for a more assertive tone in the rhetoric of the American government toward the government leadership of Iran.

While I understand the "sharpening" of Obama's rhetoric in recent days with regard to the post-election unrest in Iran - mostly the product of domestic political pressure and criticism, increasing hard evidence of violence, probably some polls - I think it's actually unwise.

What, precisely, does the U.S. have to gain by getting officially indignant over the Iran situation?

I think it's highly unfortunate that people have died in political protests in Iran.  I think it's unfortunate that the Iranian presidential election, from the numerous reports I've read, seems to have been less than free and fair.  

But when it comes down to it, the U.S. must recognize - and you'd think Barack Obama of all people would recognize (indeed, he seemed to recognize initially) that the United States has limited foreign policy capital at this point.  It is a commodity subject to scarcity.  And with U.S. troops engaged in significant combat operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with North Korea threatening Hawaii, and with the U.S. and global economies in less than optimal shape, it makes sense for the U.S. to avoid burning through any additional foreign policy capital (especially in the eyes of countries that are still wary of any righteous talk by the U.S.) unless clearly defined and pressing U.S. national interests are at stake.

As brutish as the situation in Iran appears, I don't think there's much for the U.S. to gain by getting involved in the domestic dispute beyond not standing on quite as high of a moral high ground at the end of the day.  The U.S. interests relative to Iran would seem to be a) limit or prevent nuclear weapons/weapons of mass destruction, b) prevent Iranian assistance against or direct action endangering U.S. forces in the region, and c) prevent Iranian support for terrorist organizations.  Throwing increasingly virulent words around doesn't permit the U.S. any more leverage over Iran to achieve those goals and, in fact, it would seem to further open the risk of conflict between the U.S. and Iran - something we can ill afford at the moment.

In the wake of Bush, it would do the U.S. well to recognize, to a greater extent, the limits of its power - especially the limited usefulness of projecting its power or impliedly threatening such projection in situations where less than critical U.S. interests are at stake.  After the World Wars, we were supposed to learn that we had to be engaged as the world's policeman, in effect, to prevent hotspots anywhere from flaring up into full out conflagrations that we couldn't put out easily.  To some extent, that's unavoidably true.

But we certainly haven't always been smart about which wayward campfires to parachute into to extinguish.  There are lessons we should take to heart.  Some are simply not worth the time, effort, lives, money, and future political ill-will that they will entail.  And they will probably burn out - with some regrettable damage, sure - on their own.

Unless the protesters of Tehran take up arms, I don't think the United States has a sufficiently strong interest in being involved in the Iranian fiasco even rhetorically.  I think it's been difficult for anyone to truly gauge the depth, breadth, and vitality of the opposition in Iran - and I think the media has overstated the strength and prospects of the Mousavi-inspired movement.  

Obama has something to gain domestically, sure.  He also gains somewhat by standing arm in arm with other Western nations like France who are appalled by the scenes of violence exploding out on Youtube.  But on the other level of the two level game, the U.S. has a far different plate of interests and a far different world role than France at this point.

Obama was right on Iran at the start, and that approach, even taking into account the evolving factual scenario, seems the better approach.  He exercised restraint - it's a matter for the people of Iran, one that can only be damaged by Western attempts at influence, no matter how well-intentioned, that play right into the hands of those cracking down harshly on protesters.

Perhaps he and his administration believe that Iran would not respond to a hands-off approach anyway (and Mahmoud did accuse him of meddling lately despite his calls earlier to refrain from meddling), so it's worthwhile to lead and condemn the actions.  In that way it's like Tiananmen.  You might as well condemn away.  But again, it gets back to our inability to have any leverage over Iran or actually change the situation on the ground.  Clearly, the world's being vocally aghast at the events of 1989 has done wonders for improving the domestic political situation in China.  

When and where we refuse to dirty our hands in our abhorrence at another state's actions, we leave a geopolitical vacuum.  More and more, I'm realizing that our ideals, commendable as they are, reduce our ability, these days, to influence and engage pariah and borderline states - not just North Korea and Burma (Myanmar), but also places like Sudan, Angola, Venezuela, etc.

It's a paradox.  China, increasingly, is filling the vacuum we leave - see Central Asia, various nations in Africa like Zimbabwe, much of Southeast Asia, etc.  Russia, too, to some extent, is attempting the same in places like Kyrgyzstan.  As unsavory as some of these countries' ruling regimes may be, they are left with choices between which power to side with, and the U.S., acting on its values, loses out while the nation goes to a different power for succor, the effects of U.S. sanctions or other punitive measures blunted.

I think we, as a nation, have grown to expect that any time anything significant happens in the world, especially when covered heavily by the press, our political leadership must automatically step into the thicket, must automatically talk tough and make our clear stance known.  Do a little condemnation.  Sometimes there's little benefit from such an automatic response.  Sometimes doing so stands to make things worse.

Sometimes, we will hear and see things, as we did with Rwanda, that make us sick, that strike us as horrific and inhuman.  And yet we must realize there are limits to our range of action, to what we can encompass within the scope of what we call our vital national interests.  That's an  extraordinarily difficult judgment call, one that's potentially hard to live with.

The United States has a great example to share with the world.  I hope that people in other nations can come to fully enjoy the measure of individual liberty and democracy that still exists in the U.S.  

But I don't think bringing that experience and example to bear in the current Iran situation does much critically positive for the U.S. in the eyes of the world; I think our other engagements worldwide make it difficult for us to bring power to bear to back up our rhetoric (see the failure in Georgia); and I don't think we have strong enough direct national interests in the Iranian situation to warrant escalating (even as the protests seem to diminish and the multi-party front dissolve) our rhetoric or actual involvement at this time.  And, what's more, even if the wily Mahmoud tries, as always, to bait the U.S.:

"It's not productive, given the history of US-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling."