On a rainy day in 1993, I sat with my parents at the opening ceremonies of the Holocaust Museum and heard President Clinton, who was doing nothing to stop the genocide in Bosnia, suggest that the genocide in Bosnia must be stopped, because never again can we allow genocide to occur. My mother laconically whispered that "he talks about Bosnia as if he is somebody else." I was reminded of her distinction between the president and the rest of us when I read a piece on this magazine's website by my haver Michael Walzer, who made the same distinction but for the opposite end. He wished to exonerate the president. His subject was President Obama's stony reluctance to condemn the Iranian regime's theft of the election and its repression in the streets. "What Obama says must be guided by what he has to do," Walzer wrote, referring to the challenge of the nuclearization of Iran. "The rest of us are much freer." And so "we need to be clear about who we are and what we stand for and why we oppose the religious zealots and tyrants who have ruled Iran for the last decades." But the president need express, or teach, no such clarity. "Heads of state," who can "defend political principles" if they wish, "have other things to do." This was the stirring slogan of Walzer's exemption of the president from moral leadership in the midst of one of the greatest explosions of democratic energy in our time: "For liberals and leftists--opposition and nothing else; for state diplomats--handshakes and negotiations."
With their defense of Obama's dilatoriness about the revolt in Tehran, American liberals compromised themselves. They succumbed to the Council on Foreign Relations view of the world. So it is important to be clear that the strong articulation of American principles by the American president when those principles are being bravely upheld by a people in revolt against a dictator--this is not only a statement of emotion, it is also an element of strategy. It emboldens the right side. It allies the United States with peoples against regimes, which is almost always the surest foundation for the American position. (I am not an Iran expert, unlike almost everyone I meet, but I find it hard to imagine that the young men and women suffering the blows of the Basij would not welcome our support, that they are in the streets with angry thoughts of Mossadegh. If these events have shown anything, it is that their enemy and our enemy are the same.) There is nothing more sweepingly in the interest of the United States in the Middle East than the withering away of the theocracy in Iran. Every blow struck against the structure of state power in Iran is a blow struck against Hezbollah and Hamas; and a blow has at last been struck. This is one of those instances in which our planners may have some use for our principles. I understand the urgency of the nuclear issue, of course. I doubt that those centrifuges will be negotiated away; but if there is any hope for diplomacy, it lies in a political transformation in Tehran.
I do not agree that Obama's diffidence about liberation and human rights is owed entirely to a fear of nuclear proliferation. He has another commitment. He is determined to be the un-ugly American. This excites him. He is consecrated to an engagement with the Muslim world, which is not entirely consistent with a consecration to democracy. Even as the brutality of the ayatollahs was increasing, Obama made a point of referring graciously to "the Islamic Republic of Iran," as if it would be a slander against Islam or Iran to refer to the regime in a less legitimating manner. (The commentators are declaring a "crisis of legitimacy" in Iran, but there can be no crisis of legitimacy where there is no legitimacy.) Why does Obama care so much for Khamenei's good opinion? Khamenei will blame the West whatever the West does, because he believes that the West is forever to blame. Khamenei responded to Obama's rapture in Cairo with this. And soon, if he is to act according to his plan, Obama will have to sit down with Ahmadinejad. Perhaps he will shake his hand. Perhaps he will he wear a green tie. There are many ways for an American to be ugly or un-ugly. The hearts of millions are about to be broken. They will look to the president of the United States. Will his mincing cease? Will the realist get real? In recent days Obama has begun--not under pressure, of course--to "condemn" and to "deplore." The oppressed people of Iran may now endure what other oppressed peoples have endured: the learning curve of an American president. It is the insult that history adds to their injury.
Yes and no. No Republican has explained why the Bush administration didn't do anything about genocide in Darfur. OK, so I will explain. In the 17th century there was a great war that lasted 30 years. Appropriately enough, it was called the 30 years war. Nobody was sure why the war was fought, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Germany lost Alsace and got trampled over by several different countries and private armies. At the end of 30 years everyone was tired of the whole thing and made the Peace of Westphalia, which is called that because it was made in two treaties in Osnabruck and Munster It was decided that each state could have its own religion according to its own king or government. Thus was born the modern system of states. The Westphalian system enshrined what had long been a tradition in international relations - since ancient times, and what is still a tradition today: no interference in internal affairs of other countries. As a person, Barack Obama may have the greatest sentiments regarding shooting of demonstrators in Tehran or Tienanmen or genocide in Sudan. As President of the United States he cannot interfere in the internal affairs of another country. That's true whether he is a Democrat or a Republican in the USA or a Monarchist. in Belgium.