The Magazine

Resolutely Irresolute

Obama dithers while Tehran burns.

Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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The events of the past week in Iran, following the June 12 presidential election there, have been remarkable and hopeful. It's been a moment when one would like a president of the United States--who has, in such moments, a supporting but not an inconsequential role--to rise to the occasion. Barack Obama hasn't. We are therefore put in the position of hoping that the words of an American president are being mostly ignored, that his weakness won't matter, and that the forces of reform or revolution will be able to prevail--as they may--with the support of many in America, if not the president.

The day after the election, as hundreds of thousands of Iranians gathered in the streets to protest election fraud, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration was "monitoring" the situation. The next day, Sunday, as the extent of the fraud became clear to anyone willing to see it, Vice President Joe Biden said that while there were "doubts" about the outcome, "I don't think we're in a position to say" that the election wasn't free and fair. Obama played golf.

On Monday, Obama finally had something to say: "I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what we've seen on the television over the last few days." He said he was "deeply troubled" by the violence but noted, "We respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran." Eight people were killed that day.

On Tuesday, Obama acknowledged the "amazing ferment" inside Iran. But, as the forces of change rallied behind Mir-Hussein Mousavi, and as Mousavi, heretofore a cautious apparatchik, was carried along Yeltsin-like to a position of virtual opposition to the regime, Obama seemed to try to take the steam out of the protest, declaring, "The difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised." Meanwhile Gibbs said that while Obama "deplored the violence"--disembodied violence, whose perpetrators went unnamed--he was nonetheless encouraged by the "vigorous debate inside of Iran by Iranians."

On Wednesday, Gibbs repeated those words verbatim and reported that the president would continue to "ensure that we're not meddling." And on Thursday, Gibbs once again said the president "deplored unnecessary killing." Senator John Kerry, defending Obama, said, "We can't escape the reality that for reformers in Tehran to have any hope for success, Iran's election must be about Iran--not America."

All week, the Obama administration bent over backwards to avoid questioning the legitimacy of the Iranian regime. In this, Obama became a de facto ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Although Obama finally spoke about the protesters--"the whole world is watching," he said--he never expressed real support for them.

Obama supporters defended his silence. Anything he said to endorse the protests, they argued, would taint the protesters' message and damage their cause.

The protesters, many of whom held signs written in English, seemed to disagree. "On several occasions, I've had supporters of Mousavi say we need President Obama," reported CNN's Reza Sayah, from Tehran. When Wolf Blitzer asked Sayah directly whether the protesters want Obama to speak out in support of their cause, Sayah responded: "I think they do, but they're realistic."

"Realistic" about the weakness, about the foolish and counterproductive "realism," of an American president. How sad.

Two weeks earlier, Obama had promised in Cairo, in his address to the Muslim world, a "new beginning" in U.S.-Muslim relations. He spoke of his belief in democracy and of his "unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose."

Those are not just American ideas, he said, but universal human rights. "And that is why we will support them everywhere."

Except not in Iran. And not when it matters.

Yet there is good news: Obama is not the only one to speak for America. After the president's week of equivocation, stubbornly continuing to dodge and weave so that, we suppose, he couldn't be blamed if anything went wrong, or so that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad wouldn't be mad at him in case they prevailed, both houses of Congress passed resolutions in support of the Iranian people. In its resolution, adopted 405 to 1, the House