What Obama Can (and Can’t) Do for Iran’s Protesters

On the podcast this week, we discuss the situation in Iran, and the president’s latest reaction.

“Moral” language crept into Obama’s rhetoric this week as he invoked Martin Luther King and gave encouragement (if not outright support) to the Mousavi voters who are protesting the election.

Many on the right are criticizing Obama for not being forceful enough with his rhetoric. They want him to align himself more forcefully with the protesters. See Charles Krauthammer’s column for more on this.

But to what end? To follow Krauthammer to his logical end would mean committing ourselves militarily to overthrowing the regime in Iran. Iran is twice the size of Iraq, and would probably require a million or so U.S. troops to pacify. The only way to get that many troops is to reinstate the draft. Krauthammer, of course, doesn’t have the balls to advocate for this, but it’s absolutely where his argument leads.

At the very least, the argument leads to covert ops and “Radio Free Persia”-type engagements, which have a mixed record at best.

Still, it isn’t a black-and-white issue. The U.S. has offered varying degrees of support to insurgents over the years, from the right-wing militias we backed in Latin America, to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, to the CIA coup in… well, Iran, we have often intervened or at least supported efforts to overthrow foreign governments.

Sometimes, this has been under the guise of spreading democracy, as with Eastern Europe during the Cold War (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”). But it was clear then that the Eastern Europeans were on their own. With two nuclear states squaring off, the stakes were a lot higher. Also, Reagan was simultaneously engaging the Soviets diplomatically (something conservatives conveniently omit in their retelling of the history).

It’s tempting to think the U.S. can “do” something to support the protesters. Sadly, the more we “do” for them, the easier it is for Ahmadinejad to paint them as tools of the U.S. government. That has a lot of resonance in Iran, a country where the 1953 CIA coup probably did more to lead us to where we are today than any other event.

Dylan Mathews has a useful post at TNR laying out previous U.S. interventions that have turned out less-than-well. It’s worth pondering as you watch the situation, and perhaps appreciating Obama’s cautious approach.