Obama Withdraws the Open Hand

Dan Froomkin
Copyright 2010
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 6:11 PM

President Obama's I'll-talk-to-anyone approach to international diplomacy does, it turns out, have exceptions. One is for leaders who are in the middle of brutally repressing anti-government protesters. Most of the talk about yesterday's press conference today is either about Obama's increasingly harsh criticism of the Iranian crackdown or about the hysterical response by some traditional-media journalists to Obama calling on a blogger bearing a question from an actual Iranian. But the bigger news, it seems to me, is how Obama has now imposed some conditions on what used to be an unconditional offer to talk to Iran's leaders. Here's how Obama put it -- ever so diplomatically: We are going to monitor and see how this plays itself out before we make any judgments about how we proceed. But to reiterate, there is a path available to Iran in which their sovereignty is respected, their traditions, their culture, their faith is respected, but one in which they are part of a larger community that has responsibilities and operates according to norms and international rules that are universal. We don't know how they're going to respond yet, and that's what we're waiting to see. Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger note in their New York Times story that administration officials told them that more so now than even a few days ago... the prospects for any dialogue with Iran over its nuclear program appear all but dead for the immediate future, though they held out hope that Iran, assuming it has a stable government, could respond to Mr. Obama???s overtures later in the year. Cooper and Sanger write: While Mr. Obama did not rule out the possibility of engaging with Iran over the nuclear issue, administration officials and European diplomats say that the door to talks has all but closed, at least for now. "I think that under these circumstances, no one is going to be able to pursue anything because there is nothing to pursue," said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, who has been consulting with White House officials "on a daily basis," he said, about the unfolding situation in Iran. Glenn Kessler explains, well into his Washington Post story: As newly described by the president, engagement is not an initiative from the United States but "a path available to Iran" that is linked to "how they handle the dissent within their own country." So far, as the president noted, "what we've seen . . . is not encouraging in terms of the path that this regime may choose to take." This is not to say that Obama isn't keeping his eye on the prize. Kessler writes: Since the election crisis began, the president has sought to preserve his options for future dealings with the government, assuming it survives. While his rhetorical message has sharpened, he has not called the June 12 election a fraud, refused to deal with the announced winner, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or spelled out sanctions Iran might face if it continues its crackdown on protesters. Obama has also been careful to avoid the appearance of meddling, even to the point of sidestepping all questions on Ahmadinejad's legitimacy. Or, as Anne Gearan explains for the Associated Press: Behind President Barack Obama's toughened but modulated response to the Iranian election crisis is a calculation that when the dust settles, the United States will still face an unpredictable adversary that gets closer every day to producing nuclear weapons.... "My position coming into this office has been that the United States has core national security interests in making sure that Iran doesn't possess a nuclear weapon and it stops exporting terrorism outside of its borders," Obama told reporters Tuesday. Gearan points out that Obama's attempt "not to poison chances for negotiations over those threats" has given "Republican critics room to call him timid." But as Obama pointed out so effectively pointed out yesterday, political sniping is not his most urgent priority. Meanwhile, Obama's decision to call on Nico Pitney, a Huffington Post editor who has been monitoring and reporting on the crackdown in Iran as it plays out on the Internet, is giving some MSM reporters the vapors. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank was besides himself, complaining bitterly of "prepackaged entertainment" and "stagecraft" and "planted" questions. Similarly, The Post's Howard Kurtz calls it "the strangest bit of orchestration I can recall at one of these events." But while it's true that White House press aides reached out to Pitney and asked him to bring a question proposed by an Iranian, they didn't know what the question would be. If the White House had solicited a particular question -- or even knew what a question would be ahead of time -- that would be an abuse of the forum. So would it be if the president called on someone he knew would ask softballs. (Think Jeff Gannon.) But when Pitney was called on, it turned out the question he chose was a tough one, about how Obama would determine whether the election results were legitimate. It was "far and away the best question" of the day, according to the Guardian's Michael Tomasky. Here is Pitney explaining how it came about. And here's how Ari Melber puts it, for the Nation: By injecting a citizen question into a live presidential press conference, Pitney cracked the Beltway boundaries on who gets to interrogate the President.... [M]any Washington reporters routinely, secretly grant the White House blind quotes and restrictive ground rules in exchange for access. By contrast, Pitney transparently told readers about his dealings with the White House, in real time, on his blog. The public would be better served if all media outlets took that tack, publishing any arrangements, restrictions or ground rules along with every article or interview.

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