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Are great powers limited to “bearing witness”?

As I said last night, I was not very impressed with President Obama’s comments about Iran at yesterday’s press conference, and I’m a bit surprised that they seem generally to have been well-received on the conservative blogosphere. Scott was similarly underwhelmed, describing Obama’s remarks as “formulaic.”

That’s about right. Obama, as he often does, basically stringed together a series of cliches and talking points in the hope that he would come up with something pleasing to the ear, if short on substance or even coherence. Thus, he reiterated that “the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is not interfering with Iran’s affairs,” even as he told the regime what it “must” do (“it must respect those rights and heed the will of its own people. It must govern through consent and not coercion”).

Reverting to his non-judgmental mode, Obama said that “the Iranian people can speak for themselves” (but for how much longer and at what price) and that “the Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government.” America, meanwhile will “bear witness.”

What does this mean? Will the Iranians judge while we watch? Or do we get to reach an ultimate judgment too? And if so, can we take serious, meaningful actions consistent with our judgment? Or would we be estopped from such “meddling” by our role in overthrowing a left-wing Iranian government in 1953?

More likely than not, and particularly if the U.S. adopts the passive posture Obama describes, the Iranians for the foreseeable future will judge their regime in a sullen, repressed whisper, fearful of arrest and persecution for any judgment uttered more loudly. The U.S., by contrast, will be a free agent — free to negotiate with the regime, or to take measures against it, or to do nothing. If we negotiate with the murderous mullahs, or if we do nothing, the Iranian people will take no comfort from our role as witness and occasional lecturer.

To answer the question that appears at the top of this post, great powers are not limited to “bearing witness” and offering occasional lectures. Nor does Obama think they (we) are. For example, he is not content merely to bear witness to what he calls the “stalemate” on the West Bank, or even to the construction of some housing there by some Israeli settlers.

Like any leader of a great power, Obama picks and chooses which matters he wishes to interfere in. The rest of us bear witness and judge his choices.

He is on the verge of choosing very badly in Iran.

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