How much damage did Barak Obama do to the incipient Iranian revolution—and by extension, to peace in the Middle East and to the U.S. national interest—when he failed to support the Iranian protesters, and instead poured cold water on Moussavi as an alternative to Ahmadinejad? His defenders say, not much, for two reasons. First, sending troops or guns was out of the question, and without that mere words were not going to make much of a difference. And second, Obama later corrected himself, and issued a statement which (though he denied it) changed his position to one of support. They could not be more wrong on both counts. The damage Obama did was enormous, and his self-correction did nothing whatever to repair that damage
In the last thirty years we have seen many revolutions around the world in which people took to the streets in large numbers and were faced there by a much smaller number who were heavily armed. What we have learned from these situations it is that one factor matters more than any other: confidence. For the police and security forces, there is no safe course of action. It’s dangerous to follow orders and shoot unarmed people, and it’s dangerous not to follow orders and not shoot. The one might get them tried for murder if the revolution succeeds, and the other might get them executed for mutiny. And so they try desperately to see which way the wind is blowing. If the police become confident that the revolution is failing, they’ll obey orders. If on the other hand they believe that it is succeeding, they’ll join the crowds. Every single one of them is trying to discern the tipping point, the moment when it becomes clear which way things are going, and until then they try to avoid committing themselves. An added factor in this game of confidence is that the people with the guns probably have relatives and close friends among the protesters. Even if they don’t get into trouble with the authorities (whether the old or the new) they also have to worry both about the safety of those dear to them, and how their own actions will be judged at home.
On the other side, confidence is even more important. It is dangerous to confront armed men on the streets, and aside from a foolhardy few, most will only do so if they feel confident that things can go their way. The more people come out, the safer they all feel, and then even more will come out. But confidence either grows or it declines—it can’t stand still. As soon as the size of the crowd is noticeably less, confidence will quickly drain away. Like the security forces, the protesters too are looking for that tipping point—the point at which they are so strong that the security forces will begin to lose confidence in their superiors and stop obeying orders. The mood of one side soon affects that of the other. As one side gain confidence, their opponents lose it. But what is most important is that once the protesters start to doubt the outcome, it is no longer in doubt: they have lost.
In a situation like this, Barak Obama was not powerless to affect the outcome, as his defenders suggest. As spokesman for the most powerful nation on earth, he was in a position to make a real difference to the all-important psychology on both sides—and that is exactly what he did. But instead of building up the confidence of the protesters (and simultaneously undermining that of the security apparatus) with encouragement and a ringing endorsement of what they were doing, what he actually did was to give comfort to the forces of repression and undermine the confidence of the Iranian people.
Was this factor important enough to affect the outcome? We can never know for sure, but we can say two things with certainty. First, that this was evidently a close call for the regime, and that, to judge from the visible uncertainty of the security forces in the early going, the tipping point was nearly reached. And second, that Obama’s words discouraged the protesters in the street, and gave aid and comfort to the Ahmadinejad regime. We can only conclude that it is quite possible, though not certain, that in a closely balanced situation Obama’s words retarded momentum that had neared the tipping point and thus saved the day for the regime.
What about his later self-correction? There can be no doubt that it was completely irrelevant. The crisis of confidence had already passed. Obama spoke up only after the security forces had begun to seriously crack down—in other words, only after they knew what the outcome would be, as did the protesters. By the time he changed his tune, what he said no longer had any power to affect the outcome.
The stakes in this potential Iranian revolution were enormous. Iranian mischief-making throughout the Middle East could have been ended, and a force for the good in the region could have replaced its most persistent source of evil. Obama had claimed that his diplomatic skill could solve the Iranian nuclear threat where George W. Bush had failed, but when an opportunity was presented to him to do much more than this, he squandered it in one of the worst foreign policy blunders since Jimmy Carter.