The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Tha’ts not a window on the world, that’s a bloody mirror you’re staring into!

June 16, 2009

I apparently missed the memo, because I only just discovered that the right-wing chattering class is accusing the Obama Administration of “moral cowardice” because it won’t hand Ahmadinejad and his associates a rhetorical loaded gun to use against the opposition.

I don’t know what’s most annoying about this kind of accusation.

1. Is it the narrow parochialism of people who just don’t understand that some foreign populations react poorly to the United States–or, more generally, “the West”–picking sides in their domestic political disputes? I mean, this is Iran we’re talking about: a country with not insignificant (and, from their perspective, largely unpleasant) experience of British and American meddling in their country.

Indeed, much of the repertoire of the current movement invokes events, places, and slogans of the 1979 revolution that overthrew Mohammad Rezā Shāh and ended Iran’s place as a US client state.

I have to admit I’m not being completely fair. It isn’t as if the “blame Obama first crowd” haven’t thought about these arguments. It’s more a matter of how silly their responses are. Take “Allahpundit” of Hot Air:

Lefties keep assuring me on Twitter that western meddling will only make it easier for the regime to demonize the protesters, but (a) the demonization’s going to happen anyway, (b) no one’s asking Obama to send in the Marines, just to speak up, and (c) Angela Merkel managed to issue a statement earlier today calling the Basij thuggery “completely unacceptable” without killing the uprising in its crib.

Well, this isn’t rocket science but: (a1) the concern is how effective that demonization is; (a2) the key audience isn’t the Republican Gaurd or the guys throwing stones at Basiji complexes, but those who remain undecided about what to do; (b) calling attention to how your bleating is really over what, when it comes down to it, amounts to ineffectual posturing doesn’t exactly help your case; and (c) last time I checked, not only are Germany and the United States different countries, but Germany (c1) doesn’t routinely project power into the Middle East, (c2) doesn’t pursue a containment policy against Iran, (c3) didn’t orchestrate a coup d’état against a man who is now revered Iranian hero, and (c4) wasn’t the key backer of a reviled Iranian dictator.

Recall when George Bush tried to send encouraging words to Iranian liberals? That didn’t work out so well.

2. Or is it an outlook on international politics that treats foreign policy as an extension of the O’Reilly Factor? I don’t think one needs to be a hard-core advocate of realpolitik to recognize that consequences matter, that the US will often need to deal with unsavory people, and that the “game” isn’t won by shouting the loudest. In fact, that route has cost us a great deal of influence in the world of late.

I know that neoconservatives and their fellow travelers see moral and military strength as mutual force multipliers; for them, Reagan “won the Cold War” by speaking loudly and carrying a big stick.

But even if that were true, most of those who Reagan provided moral encouragement to when he called out the Soviet Union were themselves victims of Soviet imperial domination. The Eastern Europeans firmly associated communism with control by a foreign power, and liberal democracy with national self-determination.

At the risk of repetition, things in the Middle East just aren’t that simple. The last round of imperialism there was carried out by western democracies, and the taint of imperialism can easily discredit democracy.

So, at the end of the day, we need to remember that sometimes cautious statements don’t signal moral cowardice, but maturity. The US isn’t “losing standing” in the world because Obama fails to follow the example set by George W. Bush. Claiming that it is either amounts to a cynical attempt to score cheap points against the administration, or it reflects a narcissistic projection of what American movement conservatives think onto the rest of the world.

I think it is fair to say that if we’ve learned anything from the last eight years, it’s that views of American movement conservatives hardly represent mainstream global public opinion.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.