Saying that the U.S. will “bear witness” to abuses and brutality around the world is, in effect, to say that we will send flowers to funerals. Mr. Obama needs to say something considerably more serious. In the case of Iran, for example, he could make it altogether unambiguous that we stand with those risking their lives to confront and, if fortune favors them, overthrow a dangerous, indeed evil regime. ~Eliot Cohen
Cohen’s complaint is pretty old and stale, but it is one that isn’t going away. We already understand that offering unambiguous rhetorical support would change absolutely nothing, except that it would provide Obama some cover from partisan sniping. The Iranian government doesn’t care whether Washington offers “unambiguous” rhetorical support. Confrontational rhetoric does not soften one blow of a truncheon, nor does it free one political prisoner. It might briefly encourage some of the protesters, only to disappoint them when they find that no real assistance is forthcoming. Conceivably it could provoke a harsher crackdown, but even if it doesn’t it isn’t making any concrete contribution to the protesters’ cause.
I have also mentioned before that the government risks offering false hope of direct U.S. aid or intervention if the President begins making these sorts of “unambiguous” statements, and this could lead to an escalation of resistance by the opposition that will simply get them killed in far larger numbers. If Obama’s position is the equivalent of “sending flowers to funerals,” Cohen’s could easily be described as potentially being the cause of many more funerals than there already are. In the end, making statements of support for protesters on the other side of the planet is mostly an exercise in feeling good about ourselves.
The elder Bush was guilty of this sort of caving to “idealism” when he called on Kurds and Shi’ites to rise up against Hussein after the Gulf War. That was a frivolous display of “support” for dissidents, and there was never any intention of backing up the empty words of “support,” because the Bush administration had correctly decided that the U.S. should not commit itself to toppling the Iraqi government in 1991. The call for rebellion against Hussein was an effort to try to have it all in a failed effort to play both hard-headed realist and sympathizer with anti-regime forces. That is the path Cohen would like Obama to take now in Iran. So we see once again that the only specific recommendations Iran hawks can make in this situation would almost certainly make the lot of the Green movement worse.
There is another observation worth making. I have touched on it before, but it seems to me that Cohen’s complaint captures the essence of a lot of criticism of Obama’s handling of foreign policy as a whole better than most. Many of his critics aren’t willing to call for doing anything differently with respect to Iran, so they obsess over what Obama does or does not say about foreign policy matters. Advocates of sanctions don’t really have any reason to complain, as the administration has been moving in their direction for the last six months, so they are reduced to finding fault with Obama’s rhetoric and/or silence. These critics must harp on superficial things, because they aren’t really offering any alternatives to what the administration is doing. Thus we are treated to yet another bit of whining about the alleged “dithering” of the Afghanistan review. Bush took three years to acknowledge, much less correct for, earlier mistakes, but Obama is the one dragging his feet and taking too long to make decisions.
What is most jarring about Cohen’s complaint is how it is just tacked on at the end of an article in which he has used the rest of his argument to portray Obama as incredibly self-confident, verbose and supremely self-absorbed (“international displays of presidential ego”). Cohen would have us believe that all of these things are flaws, but also that Obama’s “muteness” on democracy and human rights is another flaw. In other words, Cohen would very much like Obama to give endless speeches bristling with arrogance and self-importance, provided that he gives them on the right subjects. Cohen and critics like him would like nothing more than to have Obama play the caricature of himself they have laid out, but they would like to have this Obama caricature repeating their talking points. Having berated him for years for being insubstantial and being incapable of refraining from comment, they are now very eager to have him give boilerplate speeches on a matter he cannot influence.