Everyone can see that President Obama has damaged himself by his mishandling of the crisis in Iran. And yet what was needed was always obvious, and it was just the kind of thing in which Obama excels: inspiring rhetoric appropriate to a history-making situation, and to the heroic actions of brave people. Obama cannot have been short of advisors who told him as much. Yet even when he was finally forced to make a showing of support for the Iranian protestors, his hesitation and lack of real conviction were so evident that the damage continued. Why has he persistently refused to do what was easy and obvious, even at such political cost? The answer tells us a lot about this president, and what it says is highly discouraging.
The explanations offered so far, by defenders and critics, make little sense. Obama is a convert to the caution of “realism” and to the need for stability, we are told. But it’s clear by now that Obama is a huge risk-taker. Whether he is incurring alarming deficits, shackling his fortunes to an uncertain bet on GM’s future, or repeating Bill Clinton’s disastrous early brush with a health care take-over, he does so with breath-taking lack of caution.
Another suggestion is that he wants to stay neutral and not to take sides. Both his defenders and critics agree on this, but they are wrong. His comment that Moussavi is scarcely better than Ahmadinejad clearly implies that the people who are risking their lives on the streets are doing so for no good reason. They might as well go home. That is not neutrality—it favors the status quo and the Iranian government, and is decidedly unsympathetic to the Iranian people. And indeed only this tilt can explain why Obama has so persistently refused to fully embrace what the Iranians are doing, even while that has continued to damage him.
To understand what has motivated Obama, we must focus on the notion of regime change, both in Washington and Tehran. The Cairo speech announced to the world: regime change in Washington (the coming of Obama) can solve the problem of the Middle East. By the force of his personality, and by breaking with the Bush past, Obama would bring peace to that troubled region, something that would be an achievement and legacy for him on a grand scale. But what happens if instead there is regime change in Tehran, and it is that regime change that leads directly to a sharp reduction in tensions throughout the region as Iran suddenly stops encouraging and bankrolling terror regimes and terrorists? In that case, it would be clear that regime change in Tehran, not in Washington, has been the decisive factor. Cairo will be forgotten; Obama’s hopes of foreign policy glory will vanish. Worse yet, democracy coming to Iran may seem to be a consequence of democracy having previously been brought to its neighbor Iraq. And so instead of a dramatically better Middle East being the direct result of regime change in Washington, it could even be seen as a consequence of the actions taken by the former Washington regime, and the despised George Bush might get the glory instead of Obama. No wonder Obama spoke as if what those Iranians were doing was pointless. From his point of view, it was worse than that.
What does all of this tell us about Obama? Something very unpleasant: that he is a self-absorbed and selfish man. It is all about him. The interests of the US in this situation are clear: we should be much more secure if the viciously hostile regime in Tehran were overthrown. The interests of the Iranian people are also clear, as are those of many other countries in the Middle East. In fact, it’s hard to think of a world event that benefits so many people in so many different ways as regime change in Tehran--except that that would destroy Obama’s grand ambition. It is a cold-hearted man who can brush aside the pressing interests of his own country and of so many others, including most importantly the brave people of Iran, because his own selfish interest would be thwarted. It is also an arrogant one who can believe that he can persuade a man like Ahmadinejad to be reasonable, and a foolish one who was unable to see at the outset what was immediately obvious to everybody else: that all previous bets were now off in any case, because the Iranian regime would never be the same again.