Hawks Continue to Misunderstand and Misrepresent the Green Movement
No Victor Davis Hanson column on foreign policy would be complete without recycling stale talking points about the Green movement in Iran:
No wonder, then, that Obama seemed startled when hundreds of thousands of democratic reformers destroyed his script by hitting the streets of Iran’s cities. Apparently their desire for constitutional government and a pro-Western tilt made them almost suspicious in Obama’s eyes [bold mine-DL]. Maybe he felt their success would spoil his own supposedly singular ability to connect with the anti-American theocracy. Or perhaps their admiration for Western freedoms made them suspect neo-cons of a sort. In any case, the reformers got no support from the U.S. and were quickly crushed.
Hanson is trying to force Obama’s handling of the Iranian protests into a pattern of supposed sympathy for anti-American authoritarian rulers, but his account of those protests and the U.S. response demonstrates that this is nonsense.
Was the Green movement protesting against election fraud and government abuse? Yes, it was. Were the protesters demanding that their government respect its own laws? Yes, they were. What they weren’t demanding was “constitutional government and a pro-Western tilt” as we would understand these things. These were goals that Western sympathizers incorrectly attributed to the protesters. Some Westerners did this because they hoped it was true, some did it because they assumed that anyone protesting against the Iranian government must want these things, and others repeated this idea so that it would appear that the U.S. was “abandoning” would-be friends. In fact, Obama came under fire from these sympathizers at the time for saying correctly that there weren’t major differences between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi on the nuclear issue. The idea that the Green movement protests represented an opportunity to overthrow the Iranian government or offered the U.S. a chance to make Tehran more “pro-Western” was a falsehood promoted by Iran hawks because they wanted to fault Obama for “missing” the opportunity.
Hanson’s misunderstanding isn’t limited to Iran. Here is his confused take on protests in Turkey:
Apparently, Erdogan’s chief appeal to the Obama administration is that he shares the same suspicions of the West that many elites in the West hold [bold mine-DL]. Accordingly, when thousands hit the streets of Istanbul to call for the same sort of Western freedoms that those in Iran had demanded in 2009, the U.S. was largely silent. The protesters, not Erdogan, were suspect.
This is as simplistic and misleading as can be. As heavy-handed and demagogic as Erdogan is, his government is a legitimate elected one, so the comparison between protests against him and his government and the Iranian protests in 2009 is deeply flawed. As far as I know, the U.S. doesn’t make a point of endorsing popular demonstrations against democratically elected allied governments, and if it were an allied country other than Turkey Hanson would probably be aghast at the suggestion that it was any of Washington’s business. I suspect that this is the only time in modern history that Hanson thinks that the U.S. government should have gone out of its way to voice its support for predominantly leftist street protesters.
Regardless, Hanson must have a very short memory if he can forget how bad relations between Obama and Erdogan initially were. U.S.-Turkish relations in Obama’s first term were roiled when Obama shot down the effort by Turkey and Brazil to mediate an agreement with Iran, which also represented a needless bungling of relations with Brazil. The relationship was not helped very much by the decision to intervene in Libya, which Turkey initially opposed but then grudgingly agreed to support. Obama and Erdogan have repaired their relationship in more recent years, and Obama has done so mainly because it is desirable for the U.S. to have good relations with one of its major NATO allies. Using domestic protests as an occasion to criticize an allied government would be taken as a gratuitous insult, and more important it wouldn’t benefit the protesters in a country where anti-U.S. sentiment is still extremely high.
The larger problem with all this is that Hanson thinks that Obama’s responses to these foreign protests prove that he equates “anti-Americanism with some sort of legitimacy.” In the Iranian case, this ignores the much more plausible and obvious explanation that the U.S. could do nothing constructive to help the Green movement. Hanson overlooks the possibility that Washington might have caused the protesters in both Turkey and Iran additional problems by offering public support.