The Obama Policy on Democracy?

by Gedalyah Reback

The Obama Administration will face its most devastating challenge to the credibility it has so far garnered with Iran’s election. The administration has already taken up the policy the election was rigged, but it totally undercuts any credible approach to the Iranian regime for negotiations. As elucidated in an article in the Los Angeles Times, hawks and realists will argue the Iranians will not budge on their policies and resist any influence from the United States.

Analyst Michael Singh (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), summed up an article previewing the election like this:

Whatever the outcome on Friday, the U.S. message to Iran’s leaders should be simple: we honor not the trappings of democracy but the free exercise of it, and we will judge you not by your words but by your actions.”

To give a sense of what the Obama Administration has walked into, this analysis of his June 4th Cairo speech to the ‘Muslim world’ summarizes the Obama approach to democratic reform:

“Richard Eisendorf noted the choice of Cairo as the venue for the speech as the center of the Arab world and that the diversity of the crowd represented the full breadth of Egyptian public opinion. He then pointed to the loud applause during sections on democracy and human rights as evidence the crowd was not full of Mubarak loyalists. Acknowledging the concerns of his fellow panelists, he asserted that while policy follow up to the speech will be the most important element of his outreach to the Muslim world, the speech did leave a very strong feeling of respect in the way the United States under Obama intends to reach out to the Muslim world. He also pointed to the three D’s the administration has heretofore considered the cornerstones of its foreign policy: diplomacy, development and defense. He argued that in the president’s speech he appeared to add the fourth ‘D’ of democracy to the fold.”

There is much adieu about the timing of that speech, the week before Lebanese and Iranian elections. But Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (and author of “Treacherous Alliance” about the backdoor diplomacy among the US, Israel and Iran over the last 30 years) scoffs at the idea the speech hurt Hizbullah and predicted it had little influence on Mousavi’s supporters:

“Parsi, though a supporter of Obama’s outreach program, said the issue of U.S.-Iranian relations was only a minor factor in the election, far behind economic concerns and the incumbent’s management.

‘The argument is a little far-fetched,’ he said.”

Mousavi Groupees at a Campaign Rally

Balancing Democratization & Diplomacy with Non-Democratic Regimes

Barack Obama will be wise in trying to keep US hands out of domestic Iranian politics, but he would be stupid to not condemn the election results. But again he will have to talk down critics who will accuse him of cowardice regarding implementing his own words into real policy. It seems that if there were ever a time to promote the position of democracy, it would be when it is blatantly under attack.

But the Obama Administration has an opportunity to pursue an aggressive democratic policy without subverting the Iranian government, and that comes in continuing to upgrade its newest alliance, that with Iraq. Iraq’s drawbacks are that its democratic form of government is still young and functions with much more central authority and assumption of public trust than Westerners themselves would be comfortable with. There are also mutual allegations of corruption and militancy.

But as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman points out, “The most valuable thing that Mrs. Clinton could do right now is to spearhead a sustained effort to resolve the lingering disputes between Iraqi factions before we complete our withdrawal.

“If a decent and stable political order can take hold in Iraq, it could have an extremely positive impact on the future of the Arab world and on America’s reputation.”

Administration’s Plans to Still Offer Negotiations

The Obama Administration still wants to negotiate with the Iranians, based on a two-year-old promise of Barack Obama’s. This is one of several campaign promises he is committing himself to, even though the change in situation probably justifies a change in policy.

VP Joe Biden has said publicly they’d continue pressing for talks. But these were prefaced on certain conditions:

Last week, a senior administration official explained that Mr. Obama’s plan to give engagement until the end of the year to show success would stand no matter who won.

But not since the Islamic Revolution in 1978 and 1979 have there been such rallies in Iran. They are bigger than they have ever been, and are catching more eyes around the world than ever before. There has never been more of a golden opportunity to pressure the Iranian government than now. Already, the supreme ruler of the country (not elected) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ordered a ‘review’ of votes. This is presumably an attempt to placate rioters, or a review on whether the government will want to maintain its decision on rigging the election.

US Support for Popular Change in the Past

The United States supported these populist “velvet revolutions” under the Reagan and W. Bush Administrations, throughout Eastern Europe, and then in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon. All of them were successful, and happened within a span of a year and a half. The Georgian “Rose Revolution” in particular involved political leaders who had been trained by American NGOs after the fall of the Soviet Union. Each revolution is thought to have inspired any popular revolutions that occurred afterward, and might have actually been the catalyst for the sudden consolidation of power by the Iranian government in 2004.

This subtopic deserves its own analysis and post.

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