A British diplomat, annoyed at President Theodore Roosevelt's egotism, observed that TR was so determined always to be the center of attention that "when he attended a wedding he wanted to be the bride, and when he attended a funeral he wanted to be the deceased." All too often, the United States acts in much the same way in its conduct of foreign policy.
To many policymakers and pundits, everything that happens in the world is – or at least should be – about the United States. The recent upheaval in Egypt seemed to both puzzle and rattle them because the focus of the demonstrations was not on America or the U.S.-Egyptian relationship. Instead, the crowds in Tahrir Square and elsewhere emphasized mundane domestic issues – the Mubarak regime's corruption and repression, the lack of jobs, and the soaring cost of food and other necessities. In marked contrast to the 1979 revolution in Iran, chants of "death to America" and placards portraying the United States as the "Great Satan" were rare on the streets of Cairo.
The relative lack of attention to the United States in the Egyptian revolution was actually a good thing – and one hopes that it continues. Unfortunately, modern day versions of Theodore Roosevelt seem determined to inject the U.S. into sensitive post-revolutionary developments in Egypt. Would-be nation-builders in both government agencies and "democracy-promotion" NGOs are chomping at the bit to rush in and teach the Egyptians how to create and operate an effective democratic political system. As I suggest here, such patronizing imperialism would be counterproductive. A major reason why such a course is ill-advised is because of America's woeful reputation throughout the Middle East.
That factor counsels restraint regarding developments in Egypt, but it is even more important for the Obama administration to resist calls for an active U.S. role on behalf of demonstrators that are now challenging the clerical regime in Iran. Our unhappy record with that country puts American credibility at especially low ebb.
Washington's involvement in the coup that overthrew Iran's elected government in 1953 and helped put the corrupt and autocratic Shah back on the throne makes even some pro-democratic Iranians wary about U.S. intentions. Americans across the political spectrum are shockingly tone deaf about the lasting impact of that episode. President Jimmy Carter once dismissed the incident as "ancient history." More recently, the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes echoed Carter, noting that the coup happened nearly six decades ago and arguing that younger Iranians didn't care about it. According to that reasoning, Americans don't care about Pearl Harbor or Chinese about the Nanjing massacre, because those incidents are even more remote in time. But obviously both populations do remember and care about those painful incidents. We should not expect Iranians to behave differently.
And it's not just the coup that has soured America's reputation. Perhaps even more relevant was Washington's unsubtle backing of Saddam Hussein's war against Iran in the 1980s – a conflict that killed several hundred thousand Iranians.
That ugly history makes it likely that strong public statements by the Obama administration in favor of anti-government demonstrators would backfire. Staunch pro-democratic Iranians might welcome such support, but there are millions of Iranians who dislike the clerical regime but don't trust Washington either. For that large, wary "silent majority," a U.S. embrace of democratic forces would be about as helpful as an endorsement by Nancy Pelosi would be to a Republican candidate for office in Utah.
The best course of action for the Obama administration is to adopt a very low profile regarding the developing events in Iran. Policymakers should not succumb to the temptation to make the United States the focus of that internal struggle. President Obama must avoid acting like Theodore Roosevelt.