The Magazine

There's No False Choice on Iran

The consequence of a weak president.

Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By FRED BARNES
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Rejecting "false choices" is a favorite rhetorical device of President Obama. His speeches are littered with examples. A half-dozen times, he's repudiated "the false choice between our security and our ideals." He's dismissed "the false choice between sound science and moral values." He's not only disposed of "the false choice between securing this nation and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars," he's laid to rest the clash between those who'd "conserve our resources" and those who'd "profit from these natural resources."

But confronted by a popular revolt in Iran, Obama has succumbed to a false choice. Either support the democratic forces in Iran aligned against the rigged presidential election or preserve his chance to negotiate with the Ahmadinejad regime for a nuclear arms deal--one or the other. The president thinks he's stuck with a dilemma. He's not. The two options aren't mutually exclusive. The choice is indeed false.

To escape his predicament, Obama has sought neutrality between a discredited regime and democratic protesters. This actually helps the regime, since President Ahmadinejad and the mullahs don't need Obama's support. The protesters do. In effect, Obama has tilted in favor of the regime. The result is personal shame (for Obama) and policy shame (for the United States).

The president should know better. In dealing with dictators, honey is rarely more effective than vinegar. Obama's respectful overtures to Iran's leaders evoked only angry recriminations against America and no sign of willingness to settle differences on nuclear arms or anything else.

President Bush tried the no-criticism tack with President Putin. Nice words and good personal relations failed to curb the Russian's belligerent tendencies. The same was true with Presidents Nixon and Carter in their relationship with Soviet leaders. Nixon believed he'd achieve more by the soft approach. He got bad treaties. Carter thought chumminess with Leonid Brezhnev would tame Soviet aggression. The invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 proved him wrong.

President Reagan, in contrast, knew a false choice when he saw one and adopted the opposite tack. He challenged the Soviets with strong words and stern policies. The Soviets complained, but they also made unprecedented concessions in arms control and other talks.

Obama, as best I can tell, has never considered the Reagan approach. But the corrupt and tyrannical nature of the Iranian regime is a clue it could be effective. Implacable opposition and harsh denunciations, coupled with a readiness to talk, might cause Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei to be more agreeable.

It's worth a try, unless we are to believe, as Obama seems to, that Ahmadinejad and the mullahs could be more hostile than they are now. Not likely. Is it even conceivable they are so sensitive to public criticism, so touchy, that they'd be prompted to spurn serious negotiations they might otherwise have agreed to? No.

The latest round of pandering by Obama hasn't worked. The day after Ahmadinejad's reelection, amid indications of voting fraud, the White House issued a statement. "We were impressed by the vigorous debate" in the election and will be monitoring "irregularities," Robert Gibbs said, as if he were commenting on a Chicago alderman's election.

Two days later, Obama said he is "troubled .  .  . whenever I see violence perpetrated on people who are peacefully dissenting." He neglected to identify the perpetrators of the violence. Obama added he hopes "whatever investigations" of the fraud charges ensue "are done in a way that is not resulting in bloodshed."

The next day, with hordes of demonstrators in the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities, Obama insisted, "it's not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling, the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections." Besides, he said Khamenei "indicates he understands the Iranian people have deep concerns about the election." Less than three days later, he declared the election results legitimate.

Obama has a very broad definition of "meddling." It includes any expression by him of support for the Iranian protesters, many of them pro-American and eager for his backing. His reference to "history" was presumably to the American role in ousting a left-wing government in Iran in 1953--yes, 1953! Obama's implication: the events of 1953 bar him from criticizing the cruel and undemocratic regime today or siding with Iranian freedom marchers. That's quite a stretch. And the Iranians accused him of meddling anyway.

A day later, Obama made an egregious mistake. He suggested there's no difference on policy between Ahmadinejad and his presidential rival, Mir-Husseini Mousavi. Once again, that was helpful to Ahmadinejad. If the two are peas in a pod, what's all the fuss about? No reason to meddle, for sure.

In fact, there are significant differences. Mousavi leads the forces of reform and democracy. Ahmadinejad leads the forces of theocracy and repression. Mousavi wants to improve relations with the United States and says the matter of a nuclear weaponized Iran is "negotiable." Ahmadinejad has "shut the door" on both.

When Navy sharpshooters, with Obama's permission, shot Somali pirates and rescued an American ship captain, the president got well-deserved credit for smooth handling of a minor emergency. He was active and energetic when the stakes were small.

In Iran, the stakes are large, though you wouldn't know it from Obama's passive and ineffective response. He acts as if his choice of what to do in Iran is too difficult, too fraught with danger, for him to decide. It's not. A stronger president would see the choice as false.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.