Who Said “No Comment”?

In this morning’s Washington Post, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has some advice for the Obama administration regarding the protests in Iran:

[T]he reform the Iranian demonstrators seek is something that we should be supporting. In such a situation, the United States does not have a “no comment” option. Coming from America, silence is itself a comment — a comment in support of those holding power and against those protesting the status quo.

I just did a quick search on www.WhiteHouse.gov, and I did not find the words “no comment” as it pertains to the Iranian elections. I did, however, find two statements on the protests by President Obama:

  • Speaking to reporters following a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on June 15th, President Obama said:

I am deeply troubled by the violence that I’ve been seeing on television.  I think that the democratic process — free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent — all those are universal values and need to be respected.  And whenever I see violence perpetrated on people who are peacefully dissenting, and whenever the American people see that, I think they’re, rightfully, troubled.

and

I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what we’ve seen on the television over the last few days. And what I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation…

and

[P]articularly to the youth of Iran, I want them to know that we in the United States do not want to make any decisions for the Iranians, but we do believe that the Iranian people and their voices should be heard and respected.

  • The following day, the president hosted South Korean President Lee  Myung-Bak. Despite the fact that they had a number of very urgent topics to discuss, President Obama took time to state that while it was “not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations,” for the U.S. president to be “meddling in Iranian elections,” he wished to repeat his remarks from the previous day:

[W]hen I see violence directed at peaceful protestors, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it’s of concern to the American people. That is not how governments should interact with their people.

and

I do believe that something has happened in Iran where there is a questioning of the kinds of antagonistic postures towards the international community that have taken place in the past, and that there are people who want to see greater openness and greater debate and want to see greater democracy. How that plays out over the next several days and several weeks is something ultimately for the Iranian people to decide. But I stand strongly with the universal principle that people’s voices should be heard and not suppressed.

So, President Obama has not been silent, and he has never said “no comment.”

Judging from the text of his op-ed, Wolfowitz seems most frustrated that the Iranian election dispute might not prove a precursor to regime change in Iran on par with the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 and the ascension of Boris Yeltsin in Russia in 1991.

Wolfowitz admits that no historical analogy is perfect, but he doesn’t dwell on what really differentiates the overthrow of Marcos in 1986 and the Yeltsin countercoup of 1991 from the situation today in Iran: a pattern of trust and amicable relations on the one hand, and an equally clear pattern of suspicion and hostility on the other.

In 1986, the United States had been supporting the Filipino government for roughly 40 years. No one could have painted Aquino and her spontaneous “people power” protests as the leading edge of a regime-change operation funded and choreographed by the CIA. When Ronald Reagan’s personal emissary, Sen. Paul Laxalt, communicated with Marcos privately, the message was crystal clear: time’s up.

In a similar vein, George H.W. Bush’s close ties to Mikhail Gorbachev, painstakingly cultivated for several years, built an atmosphere of trust that extended beyond Gorbachev’s personal circle of advisers. The United States had not been engaged during the Bush adminstration — and not even during the closing days of the Reagan administration, for that matter — in attempting to overthrow the Soviet government. The collapse came from within. When the counter-counter-revolutionaries attempted to take back power, Yeltsin never feared being tarred as an agent for the West. Instead, he sought out and embraced U.S. support. And yet, the most important communications between Washington and Moscow were conducted in private.

Contrast this conduct with what the neocons have done and would have us do. The Reagan and first Bush administrations engaged in “diplomacy”: back-channel communications, moral suasion, gentle pressure. The neocons have painstakingly sought to destroy the very concept, equating “diplomacy” with “appeasement.” Having succeeded in thwarting efforts to resolve the stand-off with Iraq by peaceful means, they got their war, and now they’ve moved on. They have since drifted off to the private sector and friendly think tanks from whence they can write op-eds on what to do next.

In truth, their efforts began years ago.

Mere weeks after the United States invaded Iraq, Richard Perle said publicly of neighboring Iran and any other country who would dare to oppose the United States: “You’re next.” Behind the scenes, the Iranians are reported to have approached the Bush administration in the spring of 2003 with an offer to negotiate an end to their nuclear program in exchange for normalized relations (Nicholas Kristof posted the docs on the NYT blog).

The Bush administration’s response? “No comment.” Instead, they effectively let Richard Perle do the talking for them. Within a few years, the small circle of reformers who had been willing to reach out to the United States were gone from power, replaced by Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Since then, pro-democracy advocates in Iran have had a simple message for the Americans who purport to be their saviors: butt out. Most notable among this group is Nobel-laureate Shirin Ebadi, who has been outspoken in calling the elections a fraud, but has been equally clear in urging American leaders not to anoint the Iranian reform movement as America’s choice. Ebadi has praised Obama’s approach. A more outspoken, or even hostile, posture by Washington would certainly evoke a counterreaction among fiercely nationalistic Iranians.

In short, the louder the neocons become in their braying for a free and fair counting of the election results, the less likely it is to occur. In their more candid moments, a few are willing to admit that they would prefer Ahmadinejad to Mousavi.

Before the election, Daniel Pipes told an audience at the Heritage Foundation (starting at 1:29:26 in the clip), “I’m sometimes asked who I would vote for if I were enfranchised in this election, and I think I would, with due hesitance, vote for Ahmadinejad.”

The reason, Pipes explained, is that he would “prefer to have an enemy who’s forthright and blatant and obvious, who wakes people up by his outlandish statements, than a slier version of that same policy as respresented by” Mousavi. “If you get someone…who is saying the nice things that people want to hear, then there’ll be a relaxation, which would be the wrong step for us.”

Max Boot sees things in a similar light. “In an odd sort of way,” wrote Boot on Commentary blog last Sunday:

[A] win for Ahmadinejad is also a win for those of us who are seriously alarmed about Iranian capabilities and intentions. With crazy Mahmoud in office — and his patron, Ayatollah Khameini, looming in the background — it will be harder for Iranian apologists to deny the reality of this terrorist regime.

This does make sense, “in an odd sort of way” — if that is all you care about. Mousavi, for example, was instrumental in restarting Iran’s nuclear program (it had been initiated by our ally the Shah in the 1970s). It would be logical to guess, therefore, that he won’t willingly give it up.

And given that he doesn’t carry Admadinejad’s baggage, he might be more capable of convincing outside powers to normalize relations with Iran, and to allow his country to continue with a peaceful uranium enrichment program in exchange for a pledge not to weaponize. This must frighten those who refuse to countenance an Iranian nuclear program on par with that of, for example, Japan.

Perhaps that is what this loud talk is really all about?

It is possible to view President Obama as a more credible messenger, given that he opposed the Iraq war from the outset and has shown a willingness to reach out to the Iranian people. Perhaps a full-throated, morally self-righteous, public address in support of Mousavi’s supporters might have tipped the scales in the right direction.

It seems more likely, however, that Obama’s patient, measured public response to recent events is well suited to the circumstances. As the president said earlier this week, Americans are right to feel sympathy for the Iranian protesters, and we should all be free to voice our sentiments openly. But it is incumbent upon policymakers to pursue strategies that don’t backfire, or whose unintended consequences don’t dwarf the gains that we are trying to achieve. In many cases, the quiet, private back channel works well. And if we discover that there is no credible back channel to Iran available, similar to those employed in 1986 and 1991, then we’ll all know whom to blame.