The Duck of Minerva

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Is Obama channeling Bush?

June 25, 2009

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says that Barack Obama is behaving just like George W. Bush. Reuters, June 25:

Obama said on Tuesday he was “appalled and outraged” by a post-election crackdown and Washington withdrew invitations to Iranian diplomats to attend Independence Day celebrations on July 4 — stalling efforts to improve ties with Tehran.

“Mr Obama made a mistake to say those things … our question is why he fell into this trap and said things that previously (former president George W.) Bush used to say,” the semi-official Fars News Agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.

“Do you want to speak with this tone? If that is your stance then what is left to talk about … I hope you avoid interfering in Iran’s affairs and express your regret in a way that the Iranian nation is informed of it,” he said.

Obama, of course, famously said last year that he would negotiate with Iran without precondition — even though the Bush administration considered Iran part of an “axis of evil.”

Conservatives have generally been criticizing Obama for failing to employ Bush’s brand of cowboy diplomacy toward Iran — talk tough and carry a big gun.

Yesterday, Obama made his toughest statements to-date about Iran:

“the United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days.”

The U.S. has few ties with Iran, so it has almost no leverage with which to bargain. Thus, the Bush-Obama divide largely reflects the problem of trying to advance foreign policy interests in such at environment.

Bush used tough rhetoric and threatening sticks to try to coerce Iran into doing what it wanted.

Obama apparently wants to soften U.S. rhetoric and offer potential carrots. He wants to find common interests that might set the table for some horse trading.

Neither approach is guaranteed to work, of course, but the U.S. has been using the stick approach for about 30 years. I would also note that the policy hasn’t worked very well toward Cuba either — and Obama recognizes that as well.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.