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June 19, 2009

The burning question of the day: is Paul Wolfowitz and idiot or does he just think the rest of us are dumber than dirt?

In his latest missive, “‘No Comment’ is Not an Option,” Wolfowitz takes a little stroll down memory lane. He first reminisces about how Ronald Reagan dropped the ball and failed to call Philippine autocrat Ferdinand Marcos out for manipulating the results of the 1986 election. But, thanks to George Schultz’s efforts, the US got on the ‘right side of history’:

On Feb. 15, the White House issued a new statement: “The elections were marred by widespread fraud and violence perpetrated largely by the ruling party.” The following day, Marcos and Aquino each claimed victory. On Feb. 22, when Marcos ordered the arrest of two key reformers, as many as a million Filipinos poured into EDSA Square in Manila to block the arrests in a dramatic demonstration of “people power.”

Reagan’s final message to Marcos was delivered two days later, when the president’s close friend, Sen. Paul Laxalt, warned that Reagan opposed any use of force against the crowds and urged him “to cut and cut clean.” The next day, Marcos left the Philippines.

This was, in fact, a great moment for the Reagan administration. It withdrew support from a dictatorial regime; in doing so, it enabled a democratic transition in a US client state.

All of this would make for a nice analogy.. if Iran was a US client state. I don’t think the absurdity of the comparison should be particularly difficult to grasp: the major difference between the Philippines in 1986 and Iran in 2009 is that United States enjoyed tremendous leverage over the former, but lacks much of any in the latter. Marcos left because he knew the jig was up; the US even helped arrange for him to safely make his way into exile. He died of natural causes in Hawaii.

Wolfowitz, on the other hand, spins a little fairy tale in which the magical power of Reagan’s words (alone) worked an enchantment upon the Philippines, reaching deep into Marcos’ black heart and causing him to see the light.

But, at least in some respects, Wolfowitz’s second analogy strikes me as even more bizarre. He recalls the 1991 Soviet coup that threatened to restore Communist hardliners to power.

Responding early that morning, the [President Bush] refused to condemn the coup, calling it merely “a disturbing development.” He expressed only lukewarm support for Gorbachev and even less for Yeltsin, and neither was among the world leaders that he tried to contact about the crisis. He seemed focused on working with the new Soviet team, hoping that their leader, Gennady Yanayev, was committed to “reform.”

Although Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had argued consistently for the United States to support the peaceful aspirations of the Russians, Ukrainians and other Soviet peoples, it was Yeltsin — with a powerful personal letter — who persuaded Bush to abandon equivocation and oppose the coup. By late afternoon, the White House had reversed course, condemning the coup attempt as “misguided and illegitimate.” Bush then called Yeltsin to assure him of his support.

The thing is, Wolfowitz doesn’t even bother to pretend that Bush’s (rhetorical) position made one whit of difference. Which, of course, it didn’t.

Still, despite the total irrelevance of any of this to Obama’s public stance on unfolding events in Iran, Wolfowitz wants us to believe that a failure to hand Ahmadinejad and his associates a rhetorical loaded gun to use against the opposition will somehow leave the Obama Administration culpable should Ahmadinejad hold onto power.

Maybe I’m not being fair to Wolfowitz. After all, he does let us know that decisive action “does not mean that we need to pick sides in an Iranian election or claim to know its result. Obama could send a powerful message simply by placing his enormous personal prestige behind the peaceful conduct of the demonstrators and their demand for reform — exactly the kind of peaceful, democratic change that he praised in his speech in Cairo.”

Quite right. After all, it isn’t like Wolfowitz just implied that it was the decision of past American Presidents to “take sides” that “tipped the scale” in favor of democratic movements. At least Wolfowitz is calling on Obama to change course and say, well, pretty much exactly what Obama’s already said to the world about Iran.

I admit we may be approaching a time when the calculations change. Khamenei dashed reformist hopes yesterday and threw down the gauntlet. We’ve already seen signs that the Iranian police state is starting to fully mobilize. But if, and when, that time comes, I think we can safely say that Wolfowitz’s mess of column adds nothing to our understanding of how, and under what conditions, to proceed.

Washington Post Death Spiral Watch indeed.

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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.