July 11, 2009
James Earl Obama?By Paul Kengor
In one of numerous infamous moments during a disastrous presidency, President Jimmy Carter, in December 1978, was asked by reporters if he thought the Shah of Iran would survive the crisis that threatened to give birth to history's worst theocratic-terrorist-Islamist state.
"I don't know," offered Carter. "I hope so. This is something that is in the hands of the people of Iran. We have never had any intention and don't have any intention of trying to intercede in the internal political affairs of Iran. We personally prefer that the Shah maintain a major role in the government, but that's a decision for the Iranian people to make."
This statement of stunning passivity and ambiguity set off an earthquake. It was a fatal vote of no confidence in the Shah from the most important country in the world, from Iran's top ally, and from the Shah's longtime protector and benefactor. Iranians placed enormous stock in Uncle Sam's statements, and the American president had made it clear that the Shah's fate was no longer in America's hands. The situation was an Iranian "internal affair." America should not meddle.
It would be only weeks after that Carter statement that the Shah was finished, and Iran became a global nightmare.
I've thought of that moment often since Iran erupted a few weeks ago, and still continues to reverberate, even as America's news media has turned to higher priorities, like Michael Jackson. I registered my own vote of no confidence: in President Obama's initial responses to the historic opportunity in Iran, which were eerily reminiscent of President Carter.
After first saying nothing, Obama did worse when he issued a jaw-dropping, Carter-like appraisal on June 15:
"[W]e respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran."
The leader of the free world didn't want to meddle in Iran's internal affairs.
In this publication, I blasted President Obama for this inexcusable response to the Iranian freedom fighters, which was precisely the wrong approach.
To be fair, Obama, since then, has responded with much stronger rhetoric. This was clearly the result of sharp criticism from all sides, including some liberals. It was telling when even CNN, on the morning of June 22, led with a spot-on swipe at Obama by Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN), who trenchantly observed that when President Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate, he didn't say, "Mr. Gorbachev, this wall is none of our business."
CNN followed the Pence clip with an interview with a Democratic Party activist who wrote a critical piece on Obama for the Huffington Post.
Amid that negative reaction, there were two new polls (Gallup and Rasmussen), conducted during the Iran crisis, that showed notable declines in Obama's approval rating. The House of Representatives manned up in a way that Obama refused, passing a resolution supporting the Iranian freedom fighters by a margin of 405 to 1, and only after Democratic leaders had worked with the Obama White House to tone down the resolution. The pressure on the American president -- with the entire world begging him to stand for American principles -- mounted dramatically as footage rolled from Iran of beatings and shootings in the capital, including the cold-blooded execution of the woman known as "Neda."
Suddenly, in a blatant political turnabout suggestive of the soulless Bill Clinton more than the principled George W. Bush, Barack Obama turned on a dime and progressively ratcheted up his response to Iran's theocrat-terrorists.
The man who had first stood silent, and then stood aside Italy's leader on June 15 and muttered, "we respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran," or who had stood beside South Korea's leader on June 16 and expressed his fears of American "meddling" in Iran, had transformed into a critic.
By June 26, a stoic Obama suddenly stood aside Germany's leader and condemned the "outrageous" "brutality" and "ruthlessness" and "violence" of the mullahs, against the "extraordinary bravery and extraordinary courage" of the "Iranian people."
Obama had made quite a change, from what Ralph Peters aptly described as "silent complicity" (June 18) to, alas, openly stating that he was "appalled and outraged" at the Iranian leadership (June 23).
So, kudos to President Obama for reevaluating mid-course, for whatever reason or motivation, and adopting a truly American approach to this cry for liberty. We must give credit where credit is due.
That said, Obama's handling of this crisis reveals some serious problems and questions going forward:
First and foremost, Obama hasn't cloaked his rhetoric in any sort of understanding of the American ideal or the inspiring Reagan concept of a March of Freedom that was invoked by George W. Bush. Rather than anchoring his worldview in the vision of the American Founders, Obama echoes a bland U.N.-speak about the "desires of the international community" and "universal norms" (June 26). That's not necessarily bad, on the face of it, but it reveals him as more the modern globalist -- an empty cupboard -- than the inheritor of the torch of freedom carried from Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson to the presidents who won the 20th century. It is America, not the United Nations and European Union, that has been the force for good -- for freedom.
In short, I fear that Obama still doesn't get it.
Second, as noted, Obama undoubtedly reacted primarily to criticism of his depressingly weak support of the Iranian people; he reacted to politics, and opinion polls, and popular sentiment, more than principle. While that's better than nothing, it is merely short-term improvement, even window-dressing, and does nothing for the crucial long haul. Indeed, tapping freedom's potential in Iran is a long-term prospect, as Reagan did with Poland, or as Bush has hopefully achieved in Iraq.
Think about this: In Poland, martial law was declared in December 1981, and Reagan reacted very strongly, very swiftly right away. Equally significant, however, he followed up with a sustained effort that lasted eight years, until finally freedom was unleashed the year Reagan left the presidency, with free and fair elections taking place in Poland in June 1989 -- the precursor to the fall of the Berlin Wall only months later.
Likewise, the increasing stability in Iraq in 2009 comes only after George W. Bush's obviously intense undertaking beginning in 2002.
If Obama really cares about advancing liberty in Iran, about carrying the March of Freedom throughout the Middle East, then he will follow his improved rhetoric with a concerted commitment -- overt and covert -- to help produce the fruits of liberty.
Judging by what I've seen thus far, I'm skeptical. We need a president who gets this in the gut, who doesn't need to learn these things on the job, when it's usually too late, and who doesn't -- like Jimmy Carter -- make embarrassing mistake after mistake. We need someone who understands what it means to lead the free world.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His recent books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.