Why is Obama AWOL on Iran? part 2

In his speculations below on the possible reasons for Obama’s abdication on events in Iran, John offers as the fifth of five explanations:

Obama can’t be in favor of democracy because Bush was for it. Are we getting to the heart of the matter here? Back in the days when I was a Democrat, supporting freedom fighters would have been a no-brainer. Now, though, pretty much every Democrat except Joe Lieberman is a “realist.” God only knows what a “realist” is, except that it involves believing fantastic claims, like that Barack Obama can talk the mullahs out of exporting terrorism and developing nuclear weapons. President Obama has tried on every occasion to distance himself publicly from President Bush’s policies (even when he has, nevertheless, quietly adopted them). Here, too, it is easy to imagine that Obama doesn’t want to sound like his predecessor, publicly endorsing democracy–even for Muslims! Obama’s supporters all know that he is much more sophisticated than President Bush. So how can he do anything as obvious–as Texan–some would say, as American–as taking the side of young women who are being brutalized by thugs? If Bush was in favor of democracy, Obama must incline a sympathetic ear toward Ayatollah Khamenei.

If this accounts for Obama’s abdication on Iran, one would expect to find evidence of it elsewhere in the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Does such evidence exist?

Joshua Muravchik has carefully reviewed the Obama administration’s foreign policy statements and found a remarkably unifying theme: “The abandoment of democracy.” Though written before the events of the past week in Iran, Muravchik observes: “The most surprising thing about the first half-year of Barack Obama’s presidency, at least in the realm of foreign policy, has been its indifference to the issues of human rights and democracy.”

The evidence adduced by Muravchik to support his thesis is compelling and, to borrow his description, “surprising.” What accounts for the abandonment of human rights and democracy as a foreign policy theme? Muravchik turns to Obama’s Cairo speech:

[T]he Cairo oration was a culmination of the themes of Obama’s early months. He had blamed America for the world financial crisis, global warming, Mexico’s drug wars, for “failure to appreciate Europe’s role in the world,” and in general for “all too often” trying “to dictate our terms.” He had reinforced all this by dispatching his Secretary of State on what the New York Times dubbed a “contrition tour” of Asia and Latin America. Now he added apologies for overthrowing the government of Iran in 1953, and for treating the Muslim countries as “proxies” in the Cold War “without regard to their own aspirations.”

Toward what end all these mea culpas? Perhaps it is a strategy designed, as he puts it, to “restor[e] America’s standing in the world.” Or perhaps he genuinely believes, as do many Muslims and Europeans, among others, that a great share of the world’s ills may be laid at the doorstep of the United States. Either way, he seems to hope that such self-criticism will open the way to talking through our frictions with Iran, Syria, China, Russia, Burma, Sudan, Cuba, Venezuela, and the “moderate” side of the Taliban.

This strategy might be called peace through moral equivalence, and it finally makes fully intelligible Obama’s resistance to advocating human rights and democracy. For as long as those issues are highlighted, the cultural relativism that laced his Cairo speech and similar pronouncements in other places is revealed to be absurd.

I must confess, I don’t know and hesitate to speculate further. Muravchik has performed a useful service in observing comprehensively how Obama has removed human rights and democracy from the agenda of our foreign policy, and how odd it is for him to have done so. Whatever the reasons, Muravchik’s conclusion applies in spades to Obama’s equivocaton and ambivalence on events in Iran: “In this can be found neither strategic nor moral coherence.”

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