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By Your Command

Noah Millman hit on one of the key weaknesses of the policy arguments of Romney and Ryan:

The contrast was especially true in foreign policy, where Ryan raised almost no substantive objectives to the President’s policy but repeatedly asserted that the President “appeared” weak because he “called Assad a reformer” or “announced a deadline for withdrawal” or “didn’t stand up for American values,” but it wasn’t limited to that area. In domestic policy as well, Ryan repeatedly resorted to formulations suggesting that announcing a goal – 4% economic growth, for example – was the same as articulating a policy.

The most telling examples of this tendency to treat speech as a meaningful policy measure were the two times when Ryan referred to the importance of voicing support for Green movement protesters in Iran. Ryan said, “We should have spoken out right away when the green revolution was up and starting” and criticized the administration response by saying, “so when the Green Revolution started up, they were silent for nine days.” In addition to being fixated entirely on official rhetoric, Ryan was also offended by the timing of it. “Speaking out” immediately instead of doing so a little later would have changed nothing.

The reason this is significant is that the central complaint against the administration’s response to the Green movement protests has zero policy implications, and the results would have been identical either way. According to a standard movement conservative argument, the summer of 2009 was the great “missed opportunity” when the U.S. could have tried destabilizing the Iranian government and didn’t, but by Ryan’s own admission the only difference in what a Romney administration would have done in the same situation was to “speak out” more quickly. By all accounts, if the U.S. government had offered stronger rhetorical support even sooner, it would not have made the protests more successful. Everyone understands that it would have achieved nothing in Iran. It might have conceivably done harm to the protesters’ cause, but there is no reason to believe it would have done them any good. Most likely, it would have had no effect at all. Many Americans wanted to make an internal Iranian dispute into our business, but it never had anything to do with us.

These critics had many other serious misunderstandings of the Green movement and its implications for U.S.-Iranian relations, but that’s not my concern here. The emphasis that these hawkish critics put on the imagined efficacy of “speaking out” was an early sign that they had fully embraced the idea of the Presidency as a vehicle for delivering rhetoric capable of changing entrenched political realities on the other side of the planet. We can only hope that they do not sincerely hold such an insane belief.

To some extent, this was just partisan opportunism: fault the incumbent for whatever he did or didn’t do, and insist that his “failure” to do something different was a disaster. The obsession with the Green movement protests in particular suggests that some movement conservatives have come to take these arguments seriously, or at least to make everyone else think that they take them seriously. They want the public to believe that they think that presidential rhetoric can alter the course of foreign political events. It’s difficult to overstate just how breathtakingly arrogant one has to be to presume that the influence of the U.S. government in shaping the affairs of other nations is that great.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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