Is There an Obama Effect?

Gershom Gorenberg

Is this all coincidence? Or is part of what’s been happening in the Middle East for the past two weeks a result of the U.S. president declaring that the conflict of civilizations is over? My new article in The American Prospect examines the evidence.

Barack Obama spoke in Cairo two weeks ago. The Middle East has been roiling since. The street scenes in Iran have pushed the surprise pro-Western victory in Lebanon’s elections out of the headlines, along with Benjamin Netanyahu’s pained, precondition-crippled acceptance of a two-state solution and the enraged Palestinian response. Two top Israeli intelligence figures scaling down the Iranian nuclear threat from looming Holocaust to mid-range risk — a major story for a calm week — has gone almost unnoticed.

So did Obama set this off, or was he like the king in The Little Prince who ordered the sun to rise at the precise moment when it would have done so anyway? With that come two more questions: Will the crisis in Iran shake up the region even more? And what should Obama do in response?

Let’s go a step at a time. And assume that the requisite qualifier — everything could change in an hour — is present in every sentence.

First, the Obama Effect: The standard, and well-founded, view is that Iran has come apart on its own. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the regime has been more oppressive than under his predecessors — harassing intellectuals, journalists, and bloggers. Young Iranians have supported reformist candidates in past elections; this time their vehicle was Mir Hussein Mousavi.

That said, Mousavi did attack Ahmadinejad for destroying Iran’s international image with his delusional statements, especially his denial of the Holocaust. Were Bush still president, suggests Meir Litvak, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Center for Iranian Studies, the criticism wouldn’t have resonated. Iranians would have felt, “What difference does it make how we look in the world? The Americans despise us anyway.” Facing Obama and his call for dialogue, “how Iran is seen is important, at least to some Iranians.”

Read the rest here, and return to South Jerusalem to comment.

6 thoughts on “Is There an Obama Effect?”

  1. Gershom, I’m really sorry but atching protestors in Iran walking around with placards in Enlish suggests the exact opposite of their “not wanting Iranians to cheer them on”. And others argue that the protests would be much stronger if people had more hope of being helped.

    Obama doesn’t believe he has the right to preach to others about how to run their countries. That’s fine in certain situations – but his silence is deafening now.

  2. Zak:

    You are making a couple of assumptions here which I don’t think are warranted.

    First, you are assuming that English placards suggest a particular address to an American audience, rather than an international audience more broadly. English has become the universal language of international communication: if the Iranian opposition wanted broad international support, but NOT the specific embrace of the US government, what language would they put their placards in? (Answer: still English.)

    Second, even if we think that Americans are the particular foreigners who loom relatively large in the Iranian opposition’s minds, it does NOT follow that they want statements in their support from the American President or Congress in particular. I don’t profess to be any sort of expert on Iran (not that this has stopped many other people in the US from commenting, of course …), but my understanding from reading polls is that Iranians make a strong distinction between the American people and the US government. They have very warm feelings towards the former , and are suspicious and hostile towards the latter, a suspicion which past US policies in Iran give color to (overturning an elected government, supporting a brutal dictator for 25 years, backing Iraq against them in the first Gulf War, etc. etc.). Any sense that the opposition is the puppet of the US risks provoking a major backlash against them.

    So Mr Obama is, I suspect, very wise to be seen to be keeping his distance – unless or until the leaders of the opposition inside Iran directly solicit his backing. I haven’t heard any of them do so: have you?

    I have no doubt that you are right that if the Iranians had a “hope of being helped” then it would embolden the protests. But Mr Obama cannot offer them that hope. There is nothing – and I mean nothing – that the US government can _do_ in a concrete way to help the protesters which would not alienate the mass of the Iranian population, and for Mr Obama merely to speak in support of the opposition would be a positive hindrance, not a help.

  3. At university there was a Math Phd from Iran that told me that every day they would be required to walk over an American flag and an Israeli flag, and that most students would refuse. That’s more than just support for the American people.

    Secondly, I highly doubt that the American placards were aimed at anyone other than US public opinion.

    Finally, it seems Obama did actually say something:

    “Obviously all of us have been watching the news from Iran,” President Obama said June 15.

    “I think that the democratic process — free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent — all those are universal values and need to be respected. And whenever I see violence perpetrated on people who are peacefully dissenting, and whenever the American people see that, I think they’re, rightfully, troubled.”

    The United States did not have election observers in Iran, so it cannot say definitively what happened in Iran’s election. “But what I can say is that there appears to be a sense on the part of people who were so hopeful and so engaged and so committed to democracy who now feel betrayed,” Obama said.

    “We will continue to pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries, and we’ll see where it takes us. But even as we do so, I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what we’ve seen on the television over the last few days,” Obama said. “And what I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was.”

  4. Zak:

    First, I regard current opinion polls (see this one – as more likely to show accurately what Iranians think about the US government and Americans than second-hand anecdotes about people walking on flags. Look at pp. 34 and 37 in particular. On the United States as a country, 29% have a favorable view, but 55.5% an unfavorable view. On Americans as a people, on the other hand, 48% have a favorable view, and only 20% an unfavorable view (with a lot of Don’t Knows). Ditto with Israel, only more so: 5% favorable, 78.5% unfavorable – but for Jews, it’s 49.5% favorable, 32% unfavorable. I don’t honestly see how this doesn’t add up to a strong differentiation between the US government and the American people (and indeed the Israeli government and the Jewish people). It also suggests that either those people refusing to walk on Israeli flags formed part of a vanishingly small pro-Israeli minority within the country, or they had some other motives for refusing than fondness for the Israeli government.

    As for Obama’s statement, it’s notable for what it did NOT say. It did not suggest that the opposition is right to think they won the election, or that the US would prefer to see the opposition winning. It praised the opposition for their commitment to democracy, but did not suggest that the authorities were themselves not committed to democracy; he supported the right of peaceful protest, and criticized those who used violence against peaceful protesters. He certainly – and, in my view, rightly – did not endorse the opposition in the way that his critics in the US have been urging.

  5. Iran is in a period of transition and any progressive change will take time but the wheels are now greased. Give the transition a chance. If we look closely at the American Revolution, it took a number of years to come to fruition and alot of convulsions. Obama has shown statesmanship and made McCain look rather infantile and petty except to the troglodytes. We Americans need to know that we aren’t the last or even the first word on regime- change.

    Unfotunately there is no universal right to assembly or peaceful protest. Freedom of speech is a concept coming from the Western Enlightment and codified in the American Bill of Rights and is not something that Iranians or Islamic nations give any credance to.

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