Via the NYT’s “Opinionator”, I see that Jonah Goldberg has been spluttering in the L.A. Times about Obama’s refusal to make brash and unnecessarily inflammatory remarks that will do no one any good “take the side of democracy” in the controversy in Iran:
So far, “hope and change” has meant spending trillions we do not have on expanded government we do not need. Meanwhile, the huddled masses of Iranians yearning to breathe free think hope and change means something more. But the new American colossus stands all but silent, her beacon dimmed, her luster tarnished.
I suppose that appeals to the fiasco of our misplaced involvement in Iraq will likely come to little in this context, so let me try a different tack. As is often remarked by realists “isolationists” in discussions like this one, all of the most disturbing aspects – the electoral irregularities, the protests, the suppression of dissent, the horrifying violence, and so on – of the current situation in Iran are or have been mirrored nearly perfectly, writ small and large, in (not quite literally) countless other past and present situations around the globe. If Goldberg’s reasoning (“We must take the side of democracy; Here is democracy; so we must take its side”) held up, then it would be incumbent on the president to weigh in loudly – though thankfully Goldberg allows that we should neither bomb nor invade! – in every such situation; but of course the president should not intervene nearly so often; so Goldberg’s reasoning is faulty.
This is not, of course, to say that Jonah Goldberg has any good reason not to take (what he takes to be) the side of democracy in Iran, though it is worth noting the possibility that bloggers and pundits, too, can create real potential for blowback by speaking out too hastily on matters that they may not fully understand. The leaders of nations, on the other hands, have mandates quite different from those of a newspaper columnist; Obama’s first job is to serve and protect the interests of his own country, and so to intervene in the above sorts of situations only in instances where those interests are clearly at stake. (This is not selfishness, either; compare the obligations of a parent to respond first to the needs of his or her children, no matter what other persons may be similarly in need.) Perhaps this is one of those instances; perhaps not – but that’s not a question that Goldberg takes up at all. In any case, sometimes a dimmed beacon is really the best kind.
P.S. By the same token, I agree almost entirely with Hilzoy’s attempt to square realism and idealism, but I balked at this bit (emphasis mine):
I think that we ought to do whatever stands the best chance of helping Iran achieve full democracy. And it’s not at all obvious to me that that means speaking out. Offhand, I would have thought that speaking out in favor of the protestors would be about as good an idea as Britain’s endorsing its favored candidate in our Presidential election in 1808, which is to say: it would be very, very unlikely to help its intended beneficiary.
The subsequent analysis is surely right, but given the evidence why assume – as Hilzoy clearly does; she frets about whether “coming out strongly in favor of the protesters would strengthen Ahmedinejad’s hand” – that the pro-Mousavi protests really do represent the side of “democracy”? Again, this is not to deny that the protesters may ultimately be on the right side in their dispute, but only to note that in this case as in many others the right side may not be the democratic one, that democracy is but one among a class of goods that rarely coexist without tension. It is, as Daniel has already remarked, a strange mark of our political discourse that we use talk of democracy – as opposed to, say, liberalism, which seems a better term for what is really at stake in Iran – as if it were some bit of magic whose invocation immediately silenced all other concerns.
UPDATE: Daniel has more on what we do and don’t know about the (purported) electoral irregularities.
UPDATE 2: So does Ryan Sager.