This Washington Post story by Glenn Kessler is sub-titled: “Obama seeks way to acknowledge protesters without alienating Ayatollah.” President Obama, we are told, has the U.S. walking “a fine line” between backing the protesters and staying on good terms with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the man Obama calls “the Supreme Leader.”
Obama’s confidence in words is legendary, but it’s shocking that he believes he can talk his way around the non-false choice presented by the unrest/uprising in Iran. Indeed, even the Obama administration’s tepid comments about the situation have prompted the Iranian Foreign Ministry to summon the Swiss ambassador, who represents U.S. interests in Tehran, to complain of “interventionist comments” from the U.S. So if he wants to avoid alienating the Ayatollah, it looks like Obama is going to have “tone it down.”
Even silence from the U.S., as disgraceful as that would be, is probably preferable to attempting to come up with words that both the protesters and the Ayatollah will be fine with.
I imagine that Obama, like many of us, received some of his earliest praise for his ability to use words. Unlike the rest of us, Obama has never learned the limits of wordsmithing. He made his name writing a flowery autobiography, and that opportunity came his way by virtue of his role on a journal — the Harvard Law Review. More recently, his rhetoric (coupled with his race) lifted him to the head of the line of Democratic presidential aspirants and then (with the help of a bad economy) to the presidency.
As president, Obama’s rhetoric has helped him maintain high popularity ratings, although (and this should be instructive to him) the popularity of his policy positions has not kept pace. And Obama’s only concrete diplomatic achievement to date (to my knowledge at least) involved wordsmithing — at the economic summit, he is said to have found the words that bridged a gap between France and China over the issue of tax havens. Finally, Obama’s “speech to the Muslims” in Cairo appears to have been mostly well-received abroad and at home.
Unfortunately, the current clash in Iran isn’t about tax havens, nor can it be addressed by pointing to the past sins by the competing parties. The protesters are that rare breed — a group that Obama cannot easily find fault with. Their only sin is their desire for liberty.
Obama did attempt a variation of his usual “both sides are guilty” gambit when he noted that the difference between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad is not great. But the clash is not about the merit of Mousavi.
During the presidential campaign, Obama responded to the criticism of a frustrated Hillary Clinton that Obama relied too much on mere words by “borrowing” another politician’s refrain:
‘I have a dream’ — just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ — just words. ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ – just words. Just speeches.
There are indeed times when words make a big difference. But those times occur maybe once a generation, not once a week. And the words that make a big difference aren’t ones that attempt to avoid alienating Ayatollahs.