Even as the Iranian government cracks down heavily on the Iranian people’s ability to communicate, we’re able to sift through an internet’s worth of analysis of the evident electoral fraud, as well as formal reportage on the protests and authoritarian machinations, and, yes, firsthand accounts of brutality. (Good job, internet!)
What, then, are we to do?
As a jumping-off point, let’s consider this blog post by the New Yorker‘s great George Packer:
With riot police and armed militiamen beating and, in a few reported cases, killing unarmed demonstrators in the streets of Iran’s cities, for the Obama Administration to continue parsing equivocal phrases serves no purpose other than to make it look feckless. Part of realism is showing that you have a clear grasp of reality — that you know the difference between decency and barbarism when both are on display for the whole world to see.
Is the Obama administration handling this well?
Hard to say. Ayatollah Khamenei’s call for an inquiry — whether a genuine concession to popular will or a cynical cover-up to create the illusion of checks and balances for a fraud he himself probably perpetrated — seems unlikely to change much; he and Ahmadinejad will continue to be in power in Iran for a while (Dissenting opinions: Scott Horton, who points to widespread popular dissatisfaction with the regime, exacerbated first by Ahmadinejad’s gross economic mismanagement and now by the election; he also references Reza Aslan, who points not to the Ayatollah and mullahs but to a hardline cabal within the Iranian government.) Thus far the American government has been tight-lipped and cautious to the point of timid in their comments and (lack of) (public) action (except for The Great Twitter Intervention and Triumphalist New Media Ego Boost of 2009); one imagines, unless one is a crazy right-wing Bitter, that this is less because they are lily-livered liberals than because they’re taking the long view. The administration has always had the long-term goal of engagement with this regime that has — or, at least, perceives — little to no incentive for engagement with us.
You can do the Obama administration’s cost-benefit analysis yourself; it comes out the same way even if you factor in our loss of moral credibility with the world at large. (Mitigated somewhat, in any case, by the continued Obama/Not Bush honeymoon.)
In the meantime, however, there is much to be infuriated about. If in fact you’re not infuriated, I would encourage you to become so, posthaste; any one of the links in the first paragraph of this post should do the trick.
It’s important to remember that the whole neoconservative movement started out of a desire to cut through the moral relativism of the public sphere and reestablish certain basic truths and moral certainties as agreed upon by the consensus of the formally educated; and gained some consensus during the clumsily executed but essentially well-intentioned humanitarian-based intervention of the Clinton years. Intervention into situations that inspired in right-thinking people feelings much like the ones currently inspired in right-thinking people by the situation in Iran. Intervention into situations — including, in Clinton’s case too, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — that incense us to a degree inversely proportionate to our ability to do anything about them. The word “impotent” precedes the word “rage” quite often.
Theoretically, the attitude that got us into Iraq (well, that attitude along with corporate greed and and a desire to test-drive certain theories of military tactics — better to say “the attitude that got us into Afghanistan”) was rejected at the polls in November. (By proxy, granted — but if anything, John McCain’s foreign policy is even more morally derived, nuance-free and foolish than Bush’s.) But it’s hard for anyone to feel that America isn’t, basically, morally superior to an Iranian government that blatantly rigs elections and beats, perhaps kills the citizens who would dare to protest it.
(It is also hard for many Americans not to feel morally and intellectually superior to a self-proclaimed “Islamic Republic”, for obvious reasons — though the kinship they feel with the protestors is harder to parse.)
And so, now that the Obama Era is weathering its first large-scale humanitarian crisis, we the people are experiencing some very Clintonian pangs of Do-Something outrage. Much of it is motivated by objective humanitarian concern, and even makes credible arguments for its own pragmatism — such as the above-linked piece by my number-one crush George Packer. This is easy enough to applaud, and perhaps even admirable — it is hard to report as extensively as Packer has from the world’s benighted places and not feel that Something Must Be Done, whether or not anything actually Can. (Packer initially supported the invasion of Iraq, but has since written eloquently and forcefully on why it was a mistake.)
Sensitive arguably to a fault to the mistreatment of people by authoritarian states, Slate columnist and Gulag scholar Anne Applebaum comes right out and says it:
In part because they intuitively disdain anything that President George W. Bush admired, in part because they doubt its efficacy, the Obama administration has quite deliberately stayed away from the whole idea of promoting democracy in general and elections in particular… And yet—the elections Iran held June 12 also proved just how powerful, and just how ultimately uncontrollable, even the most heavily managed elections can be.
(As I write this on Monday night, though, the most popular story on Slate is Chris “Ignorant Religious Extremism Must Be Stopped, for Offending My Sense of Aesthetics” Hitchens’ take on Iran. He is, naturally, creaming his pants with self-righteous outrage, indulging in the same kind of inflamed, well-educated, secular humanist, morally certain rhetoric last seen out of The Hitch in the run-up to Iraq, or possibly during the debate over Bloomberg’s smoking ban.)
The message I see developing is that Iran is run by bad people, that good people are being hurt, and that America ought to do something about it, or at least say something about it. I’m not sure you can call George W. Bush an idealist — given his administration’s ignorance, corruption and power-grabs — but this developing message does align with his lofty rhetoric on democracy and values.
It is, at heart, a good message, and it will not take long to find a new messenger.
Thus far Dick Cheney has been surprisingly mum on the subject of Iran. I wonder how much longer that will last.