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Obama, Staying Cool on Iran

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The foreign policy sins of the United States fall into two categories: commission and omission. The commission ones include the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and a one-time Latin American policy tailored to the needs of United Fruit Co. The sins of omission are less well-known. They include the failure to redeem the hollow promises to various subjugated peoples -- the Hungarians of 1956, the Shiites of 1991 -- that America would come to their aid. In Iran, the Obama administration is intent on not adding to this list.

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The current policy, much criticized by prominent Republicans, vindicated Barack Obama's boast in his Cairo speech that he is a "student of history." The student in him knows that the worst thing the United States could do at the moment is provide the supreme leader and the less supreme leaders with the words to paint the opposition as American stooges -- or, even worse, suggest to the protesters that some sort of help is on its way from Washington.

Some of Obama's critics have faulted him for not doing what Ronald Reagan (belatedly) did following the fraudulent election in the Philippines in 1986. After some dithering, Reagan virtually forced President Ferdinand Marcos into exile. How neat. How not a precedent for Iran.

Marcos was, to exhume a dandy Cold War phrase, an "American lackey." The Philippines itself was a former American colony. We knew the country. Hell, at one time, we virtually owned it.

In contrast, not a lot is known about how Iran is actually governed. If, for instance, the White House asked the State Department to send over someone with on-the-ground experience in contemporary Iran, the car would arrive empty. The last American diplomats left Iran in 1979. The United States has to rely on foreign diplomats and journalists for its information.

But information is not experience. It cannot substitute for the feel of the country -- a sense of what happens next. This sort of knowledge was precisely what the United States did not have about Iraq, and we have learned the hard way that satellites, intercepts and the like are no substitute for human intelligence. The Obama White House is showing commendable respect for what it does not know.

For instance, right now a crucial question is: What is the role of the former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani? As far as Washington is concerned, this powerful figure has dropped from sight. He presumably is in the opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, like other supposed reformers, had opposed the increasing power and influence of the military. But, as with many of the others, to call this deeply conservative and -- at least in the past -- virulently anti-American figure a "reformer" gives the word a whole new meaning.

Few of these nuances have made much of an impression on certain Republicans. As in the Cold War, they yearn for liberation rhetoric -- strong statements with a Jeffersonian flourish. Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham are two of the more notable proponents of this line of criticism, wondering why Obama did not initially condemn the crackdown in much more forceful terms, as did Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany. "The president of the United States is supposed to lead the free world, not follow it," Graham said.

Good point, usually. But not this time. Neither Germany nor France has America's history in Iran. It was America that staged the 1953 coup that ousted Mohammed Mossadegh and returned the shah to the Peacock Throne. Neither France nor Germany has been the object of Iranian vituperation since the 1979 revolution -- all that Great Satan nonsense -- and neither of these countries felt obliged to respond in kind: the axis of evil formulation of the Bush years. Pow! How brilliant.

Still, if McCain, Graham and others have a valid complaint, it is not with Obama's words but with his music. The President of Cool seems emotionally disconnected from events in Tehran -- not unconcerned but not particularly upset, either. This is a quality that will cost Obama plenty in coming years. He can acknowledge your pain, but he cannot feel it.

Iran, the first foreign policy "crisis," alerts us to what to expect in the future: a tightly controlled message from the White House (Anyone heard from Hillary Clinton lately?), a deliberate consideration of the options and no shoot-from-the-hip remarks. This is how Obama ran his campaign. This is how he'll run his foreign policy. As McCain should know, it works.

cohenr@washpost.com


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