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The Limits of “Speaking Out”

Gideon Rachman repeats a common and very tired argument:

In his first term, the president’s cool pragmatism was a welcome antidote to the hot-headed moralism of George W. Bush. But in his determination to avoid ideas such as the “axis of evil”, Mr Obama overcorrected for the mistakes of his predecessor. As a result, the Iranian uprising of 2009 wrongfooted him, and so did the Arab Spring.

Rachman goes on to say that the “voice of the U.S.” in response to Iranian protests in 2009 was “disappointingly hesitant,” but it’s important to remember that it was primarily Westerners who found the response disappointing. On the whole, the people most disappointed with the U.S. response to protests in Iran have not been Iranians. Instead, it has been people outside Iran who keep insisting that the U.S. should have “spoken out” more in support of the protesters. Most Iranians likely should legitimately fault the administration for imposing cruel and useless sanctions on the country that hurt the civilian population, but there is not much evidence to support the contention that it left the Iranian opposition in the lurch when it could have helped or that it could have done more than it did that would have had any constructive effect. When Rachman says that the Iranian protests and Arab Spring “wrongfrooted” the administration, he means that it did not respond to these events in the way that he would have preferred. He certainly doesn’t make a persuasive case that the administration’s responses to any of these events were bad for the U.S. For that matter, he doesn’t provide support for the implication that these responses were bad for any of the countries involved.

Rachman says that the administration must regret its response to the Iranian protests in 2009 and 2010, but he never explains why that is so. Rachman regrets the response, but never says what could have been done differently that would have made the slightest difference. Had the administration been more vocal in supporting the protesters in Iran, and they had still been crushed, this would have changed nothing in Iran and exposed the U.S. to the charge that its pledges of support were meaningless. “Speaking out” more often will usually not yield better results in the countries where authoritarian regimes abuse and repress their people, and the antagonism with other governments that it will create will not do the U.S. or local dissidents any favors. Less reticence from the U.S. on this subject is mainly a matter of satisfying disappointed Westerners.

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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