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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bush:China::Obama:Iran? No One Said Foreign Policy Was Easy...

Twenty years ago when the Chinese Communist government slaughtered thousands of its own youth in Tiananmen Square, I wanted President George H.W. Bush to drop some serious hammer on China. Kick out their ambassador, cut off trade, maybe even stand a battleship or two off the coast.

What did Bush Sr. do?

First, the president and his administration rushed to perpetuate, in a new era, the notion that China's geopolitical importance should outweigh American concerns about political repression in the PRC. The perceptions of China's overriding significance had, of course, been based on the Soviet threat to the United States, and now this threaet was disappearing. Did that mean America would now condemn China's Leninst regime in the same fashion as the Soviet Union or the Communisat governments of Easertn Europ? The Bush administration's answer was no: Despite the end of the Cold War, China remained of great strategic importance to the United States....

The second element in Bush's response to the upheavals of 1989 was the policy of "engagement." Although Bush had announced in public a freeze on high-level contacts between American and Chinese officials, he secretly sent Scowcroft to Beijing for talks with Deng Xiaoping in July 1989 and again five months later. After the visits were criticized, Bush explained that he didn't want to isolate China. He wanted, instead, a "comprehensive policy of engagement" with China. The choice of words was surprising, because the Reagan administration had only a few years earlier used the term constructive engagement to describe its policy of dealing with South Africa's apartheid government [James Mann, The China Fantasy, Viking: 2007, pp. 79–80].

I was disappointed with the Bush policy.

I was 17.

Today President Barack Obama faces the question of how to respond to internal political upheaval in Iran. As Ken Blanchard points out in an exaggeratedly titled "Defense" of the president, Obama faces a no-win situation. If he plays it too aggressively, he becomes a foil for Ahmadinejad and the loyal ayatollahs, who can claim the protestors are just tools of the scheming Great Satan. If he plays it cool, he gives Republicans the opportunity to trot out the old meme of feminizing Obama, portraying him as "timid" and "passive."

Timid and passive? What do you want, air strikes?

Senator McCain suggests we need a tougher, more Cold-War-like response to the Iranian government's oppression of its people. But for political oppression no worse than that perpetrated by our good friend and loan shark China, here's where Iran stands currently in U.S. foreign policy:
I'd say the United States is in about as aggressive a posture toward Iran as it can be right now without ordering our Baghdad garrison to redeploy to Kabul... in an overland march. We're certainly already playing harder ball with Iran than we did with China in 1989 or even in 2001, when China forced down one of our surveillance planes, ransacked it for sensitive equipment, and held 24 of our military personnel captive. Bush Junior responded to the latter crisis with the following language: "I am troubled by the lack of a timely Chinese response to our request..."—a passive voice sentence with the timid word request.

Conservative columnist George Will expressed on ABC's latest This Week the frustrating but sensible reality of President Obama's response to Iran:

The president is being roundly criticized for insufficient, rhetorical support for what’s going on over there. It seems to me foolish criticism. The people on the streets know full well what the American attitude toward the regime is. And they don’t need that reinforced [George Will, quoted by Ben Armbruster, "Will calls right-wing attacks on Obama’s Iran response ‘foolish criticism.’", ThinkProgress.org, 2009.06.21]

U.S. News's John Aloysius Farrell reminds us of long-standing Iranian suspicion of American meddling, notes the absence of U.S. flags or mock-ups of the Statue of Liberty amid the green banners of Tehran's street protests, and calls criticism of Obama's current tack "self-indulgent and silly." And Henry Kissinger says Obama is doing the right thing.

My sentimental and dramatic heart still craves grand gestures and sweeping victories. Foreign policy, alas, has always been more complicated than that. But even if you think we can and should do more to show our solidarity with the young people demanding honest democracy in the streets of Tehran, you face a hard question: what should we do? We already isolate Iran. We are one misunderstanding at an Iraqi border post away from bullets flying.

To suggest that the President is being "timid" and "passive" is clear domestic political gamesmanship. it also ignore the political and historical realities of how you actually run foreign policy.


  1. Perhaps a closer comparison would be the regime in North Korea and the responses we've made to their aggression. Iran seems to be North Korea's little brother as they follow North Korea's nuclear path.

  2. A reasonable comparison... but note that with North Korea, too, we've turned the screws about as tightly as we can without goign to war again. The question remains, how much more forceful of a response should the U.S. give? I get excited about pro-democracy movements anywhere, but Obama himself has said Iran's opposition candidate, Mousavi, may not be much different from Ahmadinejad. Does it do us much good to get excited about regime change if the new regime wouldn't be much better than the current one?

  3. Barack Obama has yet to be severely tested. It's possible that Iran's government will initiate such a test with an act of unprecedented barbarity. I think Obama has handled the situation all right -- so far.

  4. I dread a test from Iran. But suppose that barbarous act is wholly domestic, a Tehran Tiananmen massacre. What action should the United States and the world take in response?


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