"The world is watching," President Obama said yesterday about the confrontation currently unfolding on the streets of Tehran, where demonstrators are clashing with riot police in an extraordinary display of courage and defiance. Depending on how harsh the crackdown gets – and it looks, as of this moment, that it will be harsh indeed – Obama can and should issue a forceful condemnation. A policy of restraint should not be confused with a policy of cold-eyed indifference, particularly when ordinary people are risking their lives to challenge a brutal regime that claims its repressive conduct is divinely sanctioned.
But let's not forget, as the unrest spills into a second week and the popular uprising continues, how much good has come from the restraint that Obama has exhibited thus far, contrary to the claims of critics like Robert Kagan, who took to the Washington Post on Wednesday to argue that the abandonment of Bush-era "idealism" has somehow undermined the Iranian opposition and benefited the regime.
The opposite is the case. Imagine if, since assuming office, Obama had revived the "axis of evil" rhetoric, indicated he would never consider engagement with Iran, and made grandstanding speeches about spreading freedom and democracy to the Muslim world. Or imagine if, instead of Obama, John McCain were in charge, and in recent months had been calling for tough action, perhaps hinting at regime change. This would have discomfited Iran's supreme leader? To the contrary, what has discomfited the regime has been the shift away from the blend of belligerence, righteousness and aggression that characterized the Bush era and was so easy to dismiss and caricature. Fareed Zakaria explains why here, in an interview that is very worth reading:
By reaching out to Iran, publicly and repeatedly, President Obama has made it extremely difficult for the Iranian regime to claim that they are battling an aggressive America bent on attacking Iran. In his inaugural address, his New Year greetings, and his Cairo speech, there is a consistent effort to convey respect and friendship for Iranians. That is why Khamenei reacted so angrily to the New Year greeting. It undermined the image of the Great Satan that he routinely paints in his sermons. In his Friday sermon, Khamenei said that the United States, Israel, and especially the United Kingdom were behind the street protests, an accusation that will surely sound ridiculous to most Iranians. The fact that Obama has been cautious in his reaction makes it all the harder for Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to wrap themselves in a nationalist flag.
Fortunately, the Kagan's of the world are no longer setting the tone of US foreign policy. This hasn't damaged the cause of freedom - it has boosted it.