Obama and a world in flux
July 2, 2009
Something changed in the world in June.
Hezbollah in Lebanon was defeated by a moderate political party and Syria did not interfere.
Pakistan realized their most pressing enemy was the Taliban, not India, and they mounted a counter offensive in their northern borders.
(Israeli Prime Minister) Netanyahu did an about-face to join his predecessors in support of a two-state solution in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (though attaching intolerable conditions which at best could be seen as bargaining chips).
Hamas in Gaza softened their stance a little, with “let us talk.”
A sizeable number of Iranians gave lives and passion, shouting “change” and demanding better relations with the West.
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Regardless of the ultimate outcome in Iran, these events at least show that the younger generation holds promise for changes in the future. The true nature of their leaders was exposed to the world. Their government’s credibility and legitimacy have been weakened in the eyes of the world and their internal divisions exposed. It is a drama still playing out, if not by crowds on the street, at least within conflicting political power blocks.
In Cairo in a speech heard ’round the world earlier, President Obama extended the definition of human rights to “the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice … a government that doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose …”
Could it have been he timed the speech to influence elections in Lebanon and in Iran? After all, shortly after the speech the Lebanese moderates won and the Iranian reformist movement did not pick up significant public steam until after the Cairo speech. The Bush foreign policy had failed in one very crucial way (among other blunders and misjudgments): It lost the war for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. Obama has set his goal to win that war. Cairo was the opening shot and shortly thereafter green shoots of attitude changes sprouted.
Obama’s life history gives him unique credibility with many people from many cultures . His secret weapon is his ability to understand where all of them are coming from and to tailor his remarks accordingly. His Muslim family ties, a liability, though not a decisive one, in the campaign, have become America’s asset in the battle for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world. He has used it to the advantage of America’s interest without giving away anything materially significant, and while simultaneously maintaining or increasing our military presence.
Those same neocons who brought us the Iraq blunder beat their drums, claiming ” Obama is timid: “He should have encouraged the reformist Iranians with stronger words.” Obama did harden his rhetoric at a risk that it would have given the Ayatollahs a stronger platform to continue their bloody purge of the demonstrators, blaming the hated West for ginning up anger and deflecting it from themselves, to justify a crackdown. To a limited extent has this happened and a chill descended on our already chilly relations. Obama did not totally close the door to talking with Iran about the threat of nuclear weapons. Our revised policy toward Iran is a work in progress and defanging Iran’s nuclear capability has suffered a hiccup but may still be revived sometime in the future because of Obama’s ginger response to the demonstrators.
Obama has shown a great deal of sophistication in his conduct of foreign policy and he deserves credit. Like a good poker player, the Obama administration knows when “to hold them and to fold them.” Neocons seem to have one strategy: to play them even if the hand is a loser, as they bow to the cheers of partisans looking over their shoulders, glorifying their bravado. There are often unintended consequences to ideologically based and over-aggressive conduct of foreign policy.
American flag-waving contributed to the some major tragedies over the years when we failed to follow up with our support. We egged the Hungarians to a revolt that was crushed by Soviet tanks in 1956 and the delta Shiites in the First Gulf war were later persecuted by Saddam. We needed to be careful about shooting from our lips and raising false hopes of Iranian reformists. If excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed anything to the world, it is the limit of our power.
Obama may also have unleashed forces of popular revolution that could come back to haunt our allies in the Middle East who are themselves brutal dictatorships, namely Egypt and Saudi Arabia. A precedent set by meddling in Iran could be misread by some to believe we would also meddle in their affairs if dissidents revolted. We would find ourselves between a rock and a hard spot. He, too, needs to walk and speak carefully in the future.
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