By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Obama’s rope-a-dope

I’ve been as frustrated as anyone that President Obama hasn’t spoken out more forcefully about what’s taking place in Iran. But I’ve also heard a contrary view — that if he is seen as giving support to the reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, he risks whipping up anti-American sentiment in favor of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Here’s a fascinating excerpt from an Arab-American blog being highlighted by Global Voices Online. I have no idea who the writer is, but what he or she says makes a lot of sense:

Whether or not Mousavi had the election stolen from him, it seems clear the ruling class has made a calculating move. Anti-American sentiment is one of the strongest cards those wretched clerics hold. By merely softening the tone Tehran hears from Washington, Obama has weakened their hand considerably. But re-instating Ahmadinejad ensures that US-Iranian relations will continue down a rocky road. What happens next is crucial. If Obama takes a firm position as a result of what’s happening, the mullahs may emerge victorious.

Writing for the Independent, Robert Fisk says there are hopeful signs that the Iranian security forces’ support for Ahmadinejad may be fading. That would be an enormously important development.

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  1. Steve

    Why are you frustrated? What should we want Obama to do? I have been more than satisfied by Obama's statements and tone and I agree wholeheartedly with the Global Voices source you cite.Obama is smart enough to know that we will damage any particular candidate we are seen to support, so it's best to only express support for the Iranian people.And do we really have a dog in this fight? As Jon Stewart observed, Mousavi only wishes "terminal illness to America".I am grateful the grownups are finally in charge in Washington.

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Steve: A thug is always preferable to an ideological loon. Rafsanjani, the power behind Mousavi, is a corrupt billionaire. Much easier to do business with such a person.

  3. Berto

    I think I share your frustration, Dan, in that I want things to move faster in Iran, but this is one of those situation where you have to stand back and let things unfold as they may. To trivialize the point, President Obama speaking out now in favor of Mousavi would be akin to talking to a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter. There's something special and rare happening now, and you don't want to do anything that may derail it.I also wonder about the news that Supreme Leader Khameni called for a partial recount. Assuming he is a rational actor (and I don't know enough about the hardliner to say whether that's the case), does this signal an attempt to sacrifice Ahmadinejad in an effort to maintain his own control, or a sham to placate the crowds and restore order (presumably followed by an announcement next month that everything was on the level)?

  4. Bill H.

    I think that Obama cannot change the situation in Iran, no matter what he says or how he says it. It is in our best interest to let the struggle play out among the Iranians. It seems to me that, no matter who finally "wins" that election, the Iranian hardliners have taken a setback. Their time is running out, and that is directly attributable to Obama's outreach.

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Berto: The best guess I've heard is that since the recount takes 10 days, it gives Khamenei a chance to let the protest movement fizzle. Mousavi has already rejected it as an option.Khamenei has been widely described as a weak leader. Mousavi is no liberal. So it's certainly possible that Khamenei would throw Ahmadinejad overboard in order to maintain his own position.

  6. Bill H.

    Dan, Ali did pretty well with the rope-a-dope. Maybe it works in politics, too.

  7. Neil

    Just to add to the chorus here, I agree the best course for Obama is to express "concern" about fairness, and wait. There is nothing we can or should do about the domestic situation in another sovereign nation. Thank goodness Obama realizes that any support by the US for the (relatively) moderate side is counterproductive as it plays right into the hands of the clerics.

  8. mike_b1

    No one loses a Middle East election by badmouthing the US. And sure enough,aAccording to the AP and others, Iran is now blaming the US for "meddling."This is the classic damned if you do, damned if you don't. But tactically, the US is best to say and do nothing and let the chaos fester.

  9. HNG

    The Iranian election is an internal Iranian matter, and I'm glad Obama is keeping his distance. Could we instead talk about the shortcomings of US elections, in which corporate manipulation through campaign financing is seen by many–and not just people on the left–as a big problem?

  10. Bill Baar

    America's elected the greatest and most elequent speaker. An exponent of soft power.So at a revolutionary moment in history, a moment with great impact for the world and peace and freedom, we want Obama to stay silent?He's not my favorite guy the Prez, but this is a moment where a great speech could have a big impact.It's not time for him to go silent.

  11. Treg

    But Bill, would you agree, he has to pick his spot and know the facts first?

  12. Bill Baar

    He can do it from the White House.All he has to do is express our Solidarity with the Democratic asperations of the Iranian People. Our Solidarity with their desire for Peace and Freedom.He's powerful and inspirational. Time to use the gift.

  13. mike_b1

    He's powerful and inspirational.Hmm…one could say the same about Khamenei. (And Dan, he's been in power for 20 years. Calling him weak doesn't really square with the facts.) And what would the US public, or King George or Al Gore have said if in, November 2000, Khamenei started issuing statements about the US elections? That it was "time to use the gift?" Or "butt the f*&# out?"

  14. Dan Kennedy

    Mike: You been boning up on Khamenei? He's stayed in power by allowing himself to be something of a tool of competing interests. Surely you don't think mere longevity is evidence of great power.

  15. Bill Baar

    Hmm…one could say the same about Khamenei.One could have, but that moment is gone. That's the whole point of what's happened. Khamenei's lost his authority and the Revolutionary moment is there for one person to turn history. (Obama may be a Socialist, but he's not up on his Lenin, Trotsky, or Mao.)Dan Senor and Chris Whiton have good suggestions today.Mr. Obama should deliver another taped message to the Iranian people. Only this time he should acknowledge the fundamental reality that the regime lacks the consent of its people to govern, which therefore necessitates a channel to the "other Iran." He should make it clear that dissidents and their expatriate emissaries should tell us what they most need and want from the U.S. This could consist of financial resources, congresses of reformers, workshops or diplomatic gatherings. The key is to let the reformers call the shots and indicate how much and what U.S. assistance they want. Simply knowing we care, that we are willing to deploy resources and are watching their backs — to the extent we can — often helps reformers.America has done this before at they point out.We have a President uniquely gifted to seize a moment like this.It won't happen again, and the alternatives are not good; especially for the Iranian people if they continue down the path they were going.

  16. Steve

    Bill -"I think that the democratic process, free speech, the ability for folks to peacefully dissent, all those are universal values and need to be respected" – President Obama, earlier this weekSounds like what you wanted. Not enough?

  17. mike_b1

    Dan, in the Middle East, the birthplace of the coup? Longevity certainly is a sign of power.

  18. mike_b1

    Bill, that's exactly what Obama said he would NOT do. Or did you not hear his speech from a couple weeks ago?

  19. Dan Kennedy

    Bill: What's your analysis of the excerpt I published from Global Voices? Doesn't it make sense that Obama would want to stay away from saying anything that would whip up anti-American sentiment?Ahmadinejad may have lost, but tens of millions of people still voted for him. And they really don't like us. Wouldn't it hurt the Mousavi forces if he could be portrayed as an American tool?

  20. Bill Baar

    I read speeches now with the net.Yes, Cairo would be enough. Say it again now, in English and Fasri.Read Senor's final paragraph,None of this is tantamount to "imposing democracy." All the U.S. would be doing is signaling to reformers they can count on our support when they want it and backing up our words with resources. An approach like this would be consistent with the foreign policies of American presidents of both parties since Theodore Roosevelt. It is also in line with the message articulated by Mr. Obama earlier this month in Cairo, when he said that various rights we possess "are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere."….we will support them everywhere. Speak those ideals now. This moment will pass and now is the time.

  21. Dan Kennedy

    mike_b1: From the New York Times:"He [Khamenei] is a weak leader, who is extremely smart in allying himself, or in maneuvering between centers of power," said one expert at New York University, declining to use his name because he travels to Iran frequently. "Because of the factionalism of the state, he seems to be the most powerful person."

  22. mike_b1

    Well, if after 20 years he's still in power and calling the shots — which from all accounts he is doing — doesn't that seem inconsistent with the notion that he's weak?

  23. Bill Baar

    Doesn't it make sense that Obama would want to stay away from saying anything that would whip up anti-American sentiment?No, the moment is exactly the opposite. Iran is a country lead my anti-American Clerics with an overwhelmingly young population sympathetic to America.Bush is gone and we have a President who is a perfect embodiement of young Iranians hopes for change.For Obama to squander his gifts here, to squander everything he's talked about, too maintain stability would be a huge tragedy.This is a soft-power moment.Goof this and the monent will be horrifically hard, and they will pile upon the world with bloodiness we haven't seen since WW2.Rahm said a crisis was a terrible thing to waste. Obama seems hell bent to waste this one. And it calls exactly for his talents.

  24. O-FISH-L

    One has to wonder how history and current events would be different if President Reagan was afraid to be seen meddling on the side of freedom.—GDANSK, Poland– "When talking about Ronald Reagan, I have to be personal. We in Poland took him so personally. Why? Because we owe him our liberty. This can't be said often enough by people who lived under oppression for half a century, until communism fell in 1989.""Poles fought for their freedom for so many years that they hold in special esteem those who backed them in their struggle. Support was the test of friendship. President Reagan was such a friend. His policy of aiding democratic movements in Central and Eastern Europe in the dark days of the Cold War meant a lot to us. We knew he believed in a few simple principles such as human rights, democracy and civil society. He was someone who was convinced that the citizen is not for the state, but vice-versa, and that freedom is an innate right.""I distinguish between two kinds of politicians. There are those who view politics as a tactical game, a game in which they do not reveal any individuality, in which they lose their own face. There are, however, leaders for whom politics is a means of defending and furthering values. For them, it is a moral pursuit. They do so because the values they cherish are endangered. They're convinced that there are values worth living for, and even values worth dying for. Otherwise they would consider their life and work pointless. Only such politicians are great politicians and Ronald Reagan was one of them." –LECH WALESAWSJ column Friday, June 11, 2004

  25. Bill Baar

    Well, if after 20 years he's still in power and calling the shots — which from all accounts he is doing — doesn't that seem inconsistent with the notion that he's weak?Hardly, after 20 years, all can see through him. The myth has died. The world stripped bare of false ideologies.the earth shall rise on new foundations.a better world tis in birthQuoting another revolutionary song lost on the Pol steeped in Chicago ways I fear.Obama shouldn't strangle Iranian hopes for that better world in the name of stability.

  26. mike_b1

    Bill, let's go to the tape:Obama: "This cycle of suspicion and discord must end." Comment: How do you move past that if a few weeks later you call into question the results of a national election?Obama: "I do so recognizing that change cannot happen overnight. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point."Comment: Just a speech won't change anything.Obama: "The first issue that we have to confront is violent extremism in all of its forms."Comment: None needed.Obama: "The second major source of tension that we need to discuss is the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world."Comment: None needed.Obama: "For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers – for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel's founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security."Comment: He could say the same about the Irani election. It's up to the Iranis to decide their fate.Obama: "The third source of tension is our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons."Comment: None needed.Obama: "The fourth issue that I will address is democracy. I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other."Comment: Bingo. It's not up to us to get involved in how Iran governs itself. Obama: "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election."Comment: Bingo again. In the context of his speech, Bill, Obama clearly said, "We are not going to get involved."While the GOP would love to see him go back on his word now, there's no reason for him to do so.

  27. mike_b1

    Bill wrote: "overwhelmingly young population sympathetic to America."Wow, the same line of thinking was presented by the Cheney Administration in regards to Iraq. And look where that got us. A worldwide recession.Those who forget the past…

  28. Dan Kennedy

    Bill, Fish, et al.: Reagan was addressing countries whose people were overwhelmingly pro-American. He had a lot of leverage. Obama is addressing a country that has been animated by deep anti-Americanism for several generations.Educated young people in Iran may not hate us, but tens of millions do. That presents Obama with a very different rhetorical challenge, wouldn't you say?

  29. Bill Baar

    Obama: "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election."Obama is betraying this if ignore the opposition's call for a new election. "Seiyed Ali Pinochet, Chile Iran nemishe" (Seiyed Ali Pinochet, Iran won't become Chile).'s a new President. His message to those in the street how does Obama's New America support you. What do you ask of America because America stands with you.

  30. Bill Baar

    I remember Iranian Students protesting in Chicago against the Shah. When Carter shunned contact with the opposition to the Shah because it was a hard group to figure out.We've got a new generation now, open to the west. Let's not blow it by keeping silent and looking like we're ignoring them, and keeping open our outstretched hand to their Pinochet.It will be another generation before we can set that straight and given "Pinochet's" lust for nukes, I doubt Iran will survive that long.It's a heck of an opportunity offered Obama here. And a horrible price to be paid with the status quo.

  31. mike_b1

    Bill, every loser in an election says the vote was rigged. That's just specious. You're asking for another Iraq. It's regime change, and it would be a disaster. Except for the GOP war machine.

  32. Bill Baar

    Yes, I'm asking for another Iraq.Not the Sunnia Shia conflict sparked by AQI. That was really the surprize to me about our invasion. I expected a unified radical Islamic insurgency to our occupation, and instead AQI used the moment to blow up the Great Shia Mosque in Sammarra and bring the country close to civil war.I think the Democracy as it is emerging in Iraq and to the west in Afganistan, and especially the role emerging for Women in Iran's neigbors east and west is at work here.Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, sparked much of what we're seeing. have lost bitterly for many years now in Iran. They've risen. We ought to at least express our Solidarity with them.

  33. Dan Kennedy

    Yes, I'm asking for another Iraq.Hmmm … Bill, if this were sports, I'd say you just took yourself out the game.

  34. Bill Baar

    Were it only sports Dan.It's deadly serious and a the monster nuclear war in the middle east sitting in the dugout; waiting for it's moment at bat.Iran has an opportunity to get a style of Democracy on par with Iraq and Lebanon… without the bloodshed of Iraq.Iran's been discouraging Pilgrims to Iraq exactly because it fears what's going on there. It fears elections open to foreign observers with unknown outcomes and hundreds of parties and people who express contempt for clerics.We've got a soft power moment with an eloquent President unlike anyone before seen. Obama can cause a sesmic shift with a speech.I think so much has ever rested on one man's words before.

  35. Bill Baar

    sorry,I don't think so much has ever rested on one man's words before.

  36. Bill Baar

    Canada's statement via Winston.The Honourable Lawrence Cannon, Minister of Foreign Affairs, today made the following statement regarding the situation in Iran following the presidential election:“Canada is deeply troubled by the current situation in Iran. The allegations of fraud in last week’s presidential election are serious and need to be answered. The Iranian people deserves to have its voice heard, and we call for a fully transparent investigation into electoral discrepancies.“The banning of opposition protests and security forces’ heavy-handed treatment of demonstrators throughout the country are also matters of grave concern. “We are further disturbed by reports of the unacceptable treatment of George McLeod, a Canadian journalist who was allegedly detained and beaten by Iranian authorities. We have called in Iran’s Chargé d’Affaires in Ottawa to answer questions about the mistreatment of Mr. McLeod and to raise our concerns about the situation in Iran.“The Government of Canada calls for freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Iran, and urges the country to fully respect all of its human rights obligations, both in law and in practice. We also continue to call on Iran to comply immediately with its legal obligations concerning its nuclear program.To hear Obama say just this…

  37. Adam3d3e3w2devxcgdkh,7tbttbbb

    Bill: Canada can say that because they didn't topple the Iranian government in 1953.

  38. mike_b1

    Canada is not the Great Satan. And Obama is a man of principle, unlike the crooks who preceded him in power during the past 8 years.

  39. ogre

    Iranians are–on average–sympathetic to America and to Americans… and highly, legitimately, wary and suspicious of the American government and US corporations (cf Mossadegh, US participation in the Iran-Iraq War, the USS Versailles shooting down and Iranian jetliner, etc., etc.).So, anything that Obama does that is a "firm" act is going to play straight into the hands of the hardliners and those most-anti-American, and hostile to the aspirations of the majority (it appears) of the Iranian people. Playing the general concern and sympathy card and NOT openly taking a side, insisting on values like freedom and justice and so forth–without defining what those will look like–is all Obama can do. We have, because of decades and decades of ill-considered, short-term oriented policy, developed a situation where we can't push at all. It's like we have a rope and can pull all we want… but pulling will only make things worse. We'd love to push… and if our government does, it only gets worse.What Canada does and says is a very different thing. Canada's standing is incredibly different. They didn't help destroy a legitimate, democratically elected, popular government in Iran. They didn't help install the Shah (against whom Iranians eventually rose in revolt, remember?). Our standing is totally different.Hearing Obama say it would feel great. For us. And it would screw the pooch.

  40. Steve

    To Bill, I'd say "you and what army?" (because I doubt our military is up to it unless we institute a draft) and what are you going to do when you "win" (because we really don't want to be in charge of Asia from the Euphrates to Kasnmir)?Ogre's analysis is right on. When will we learn that Doing Something is often the worst thing a nation can do?

  41. Bill Baar

    Steve: I don't think any Army will go into Iran. I'm afraid Obama will nuke it in a war of last resort. (After A-Rad's nuked six million in Israel).Adam: Obama can pull it off. No one is hanging him for stuff that happened 60 years ago.Ogre: The hardliners hardly need an Obama bogeyman. That's over. The Iranian people see through it all now –that's what a revolution is: the old order is stripped of legitmacy. What's likely to happen now is a lot of bloodshed and dead protesters suppressing the revolution, or a victorious revolution. Either way, Obama needs to get on the right side and the right side is firmly stand on basic American values.Democracy from Kabul to Beruit with Syria's Assad sure to go next without the Mullah's support.It's a huge opportunity for Democracy and Peace. I fear Obama will blow it all, and that means nukes and war for the middle east.

  42. mike_b1

    I'm afraid Obama will nuke it in a war of last resort.OK, you are way out on the ledge there. I can respect that you believe that, but I don't see that as an option on Obama's table at all.

  43. mike_b1

    And Bill, why do you seem so intent on making other nations' governments follow the US line of thinking — and using force to get there? It never works.

  44. Bill Baar

    Mike,A War of Last Resort will be a nuclear war. America fights those Wars without Mercy. Iran's revolution we're witnessing today is the World's best option to avoid a War of Last Resort. I think all people regardless of their histories desire Liberty, and the forms of Government that respect Liberty. I think Governments that respect Liberty can be imposed, although don't think we need to impose one in Iran today. I think we just need to make the offer to support Iranians as they seek to build theirs today.That's really all Obama need say. We're here. We're with you. Tell us and the worlds Democracies what you need from us.Obama's a perfect person to say those words. His is in himself a meddlesome image to the world. The example of how America's Democracy will take a risk with a young backbencher just for the change.Obama could not happen in any other country today, or in the past.He is unique and a profound challange to many.We just need to prod him along on this one, against his natural, Chicago Ward Heeler ways, of not rocking boats.

  45. mike_b1

    To say all that, Bill, flies in the face of what the Muslim world wants. It would appear you either haven't been paying attention, or don't believe what the Muslim leaders are saying. But they have said — loud and clear — we don't want you here. Not in Iran. Not in Iraq. Not in Saudi. Not in Egypt. Not in Kuwait. Not in Pakistan. And so on and so on.

  46. Bill Baar

    Well, speaking of the Muslim World, is a bit of a tip off Mike, that you know or speak with darn few Arabs or Kurds, that you read nor Urdo or Pasht, or have much of a handle on the "Muslim World" in English either. Perhapes even less of a handle than you have on our Western Anglo-Saxon-Judeo-Christian-World. They are labels of lazy convience, without a whole lot of meaning to all who find themselves lumped under them; by outsiders who know little of those worlds.

  47. mike_b1

    Bill, what you just said means nothing. One, you can't insult me. But more than that, YOU clearly know nothing about that world. And you refuse to listen to the people who DO live there and who are saying "stay out."Why on earth should we commit decades of time, lives, and billions if not trillions of dollars to Iran? It's Iran! We barely get any oil from there, and we do almost zero other trade. If we were to commit those kind of resources, why not Venezuela, which is far more important to us than Iran? Or China? Or Russia?Oh, I remember: Republicans are chickens. They don't fight on principle. They just fight the battles they THINK they can win.

  48. mike_b1

    Does this sound like a "weak leader?"

  49. Dan Kennedy

    Putting out the order to kill everyone is not uncharacteristic of weak leadership. If he were something other than a frightened old man, he might try something different.

  50. mike_b1

    It's also a characteristic of a leader who is unequivocally in charge. Like Hitler, and Stalin, and Hussein, and Pol Pot, and Tito, and …

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