Obama Must Take Unspecified Action Now!

In my opinion, Barack Obama has already said too much about the Iranian situation, though at least he had the wisdom to emphasize that the United States “is not interfering in Iran’s affairs.” That’s to the good.

What I do not get, though, is exactly what some of his critics on the right are clamoring for apart from a strongly worded condemnation that would make us feel good. Take Michael Ledeen, for example, who complains this morning that:

One thing seems certain: the Iranian people were right when they realized that nobody in the outside world would help them. They’re on their own.

Which is indeed a great pity, and a terrible stain on our national virtue.

Of course, Ledeen never bothers to explain what, exactly, he wants done. Just “something.” Well, what? As I’ve noted before, our options are already limited. We have no official diplomatic ties with Iran. We barely trade with them, and encouraging the rest of the world to sanction Iran would cripple democratic reform movements. A military strike would not only be an act of lunacy, but it would virtually guarantee that the Mullah’s regime remains in place. (That’s assuming, of course, that we could spare troops for a military incursion–which we can’t.)

It’s frustrating, as Americans, to watch a group of people fight for freedom thousands of miles away. It’s only natural to want to help in some way or fashion. But the real truth of the matter is this: this isn’t our fight. The Iranian protesters don’t care about our eloquent defenses of them. They care about their own rights; their own freedom; their own families. And that’s as it should be.

There are really only a few, tiny actions that Americans can do that could make a difference. And that difference would only be very slight. It’s times like these that people would do well to remember the virtues of humility and restraint.

This is the Iranian people’s fight. We can cheer them on, but unfortunately, there’s not much else to do that doesn’t bear a risk of making things worse for them.

FILED UNDER: Middle East,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. Mike P says:

    Some folks aren’t going to be happy unless we have Marines out on the Tehran streets with the protesters.

    I mean…what do these people really want Obama to do? Sanctions would be idiotic at this point. We can’t send in troops. What else is there?

  2. Jimmie says:

    But the real truth of the matter is this: this isn’t our fight. The Iranian protesters don’t care about our eloquent defenses of them. They care about their own rights; their own freedom; their own families. And that’s as it should be.

    And yet they they care enough to talk directly to the President via a CNN camera.

    I dispute your analysis.

  3. ggr says:

    Speak harshly and carry a small stick? Because Hungary in 1954 worked so well?

    I’m not a big fan of Obama, but I can’t see how voicing a few more platitudes about freedom is going to help things. It would almost certainly be seen as empty posturing without some credible threat behind it.

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    “And yet they one person cares enough to talk directly to the President via a CNN camera.”

    Fixed that for you.

    I’d be loathe to take one person as emblematic of the movement when almost everything else I’ve seen coming out of Iran, from tweets to Youtubes to blogs, indicates the opposite.

  5. Steve Plunk says:

    Words matter and the President’s critics want him to speak up about the situation more. That’s it. It’s a reasonable critique and certainly not the absurd position of the right wanting nothing less than troops be involved.

    Personally I don’t mind what he has done so far but I can understand those who disagree.

  6. Michael says:

    at least he had the wisdom to emphasize that the United States “is not interfering in Iran’s affairs.” That’s to the good.

    Not that it matters, reports coming out of Iran say the state media is broadcasting video of Obama’s earlier statements, with an incorrect “translation” that has him claiming that the US government is supporting the protesters.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Alex, which of President Obama’s statements on Iran are you happy with? The first or the most recent? They don’t exactly strike the same tone.

    If your point is that he should limit his range to vague statements of support, I agree with you although I seem to recall that you condemned that position as being too strident in a previous post.

    For my own part I thought his last statement was better than his most recent. As I see it he’s continuing to to use the weathervane approach to direction finding. The danger in that is that he may overcorrect.

  8. Hoodlumman says:

    Remember, kids – Obama had 18 months of senatorial experience and was involved with some community organizing in the past. He can handle this.

  9. Wayne says:

    It strikes me as odd that so many who have in the past claim that words and sanctions were so important and effective and we need to use them more are now claiming the opposite.

  10. Eric Florack says:

    I’d be loathe to take one person as emblematic of the movement when almost everything else I’ve seen coming out of Iran, from tweets to Youtubes to blogs, indicates the opposite.

    My guess is, Alex that you’ve never noticed the number of protest signs in English. Who is it, do you suppose, such signs are intended to communicate with?

    In any event… it’s a damned good thing the French didn’t think as you, a couple hundred years ago, else the Brits would have managed to put down the American Rebellion.

  11. Michael says:

    My guess is, Alex that you’ve never noticed the number of protest signs in English. Who is it, do you suppose, such signs are intended to communicate with?

    You do realize that English is commonly used throughout Iranian society, right? Right?

  12. Michael says:

    It strikes me as odd that so many who have in the past claim that words and sanctions were so important and effective and we need to use them more are now claiming the opposite.

    Are you so sure that is the case? Or is that just a truthy feeling you have?

  13. Alex Knapp says:

    Dave,

    Alex, which of President Obama’s statements on Iran are you happy with? The first or the most recent? They don’t exactly strike the same tone.

    The only parts of his statements I’ve been happy with are those alluding to the fact that this is an internal matter. The rest of them are too risky and I’m not happy with them.

    Wayne,

    It strikes me as odd that so many who have in the past claim that words and sanctions were so important and effective and we need to use them more are now claiming the opposite.

    Wayne, speaking only for myself, I have always opposed economic sanctions as a punitive tool. They are counterproductive and don’t work.

    Eric,

    My guess is, Alex that you’ve never noticed the number of protest signs in English. Who is it, do you suppose, such signs are intended to communicate with?

    Because, as James noted a couple of days ago, English is lingua franca in Iran. (https://www.outsidethebeltway.com/archives/english_irans_lingua_franca/)

    In any event… it’s a damned good thing the French didn’t think as you, a couple hundred years ago, else the Brits would have managed to put down the American Rebellion.

    When, like the Continental Congress, the Iranian resistance is well organized enough to send an envoy to the United States and formally request assistance in the form of arms and supplies, I will wholeheartedly support that.

    Until such time as an organized movement requests our aid, however, I believe that meddling will be counterproductive.

  14. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    The right is clamoring for the type of hip-shooting blind cowboyism that we would have got with McCain, who wanted to nuke Russia over the Georgia affair. Of course it later turned out that Georgia instigated the conflict and McCain is, of course, a moron.

  15. Eric says:

    My guess is, Alex that you’ve never noticed the number of protest signs in English. Who is it, do you suppose, such signs are intended to communicate with?

    You do realize that English is commonly used throughout Iranian society, right? Right?

    Alex, Michael, would you guys stop being so silly. English may be lingua franca in Iran, but clearly that fact does not comport with Bitsy’s preconceived notions. Therefore you both are wrong. QED.

    See how simple things are if you’re a right-wing nutty?

  16. DL says:

    When they show up at our barbecue via offical invite, we could really teach them a lesson by not serving real DiJon mustard. That’d show em!

    I didn’t think Manchurian candidates were supposed to be quite so transparent, unless, just unless, he wants them to prevail-the Mullahs, that is.

  17. Phil Smith says:

    Are you guys really going to claim that the existence of English language signage for important public services in Iran is somehow indicative that they would choose to communicate with one another in English as a first preference? Those signs are for foreign consumption. That doesn’t entail that they’re for American consumption, but it’s just ludicrous to even attempt to argue that they’re for internal use only.

    Some of the other arguments I’ve seen here are fairly persuasive, but this one is just silly.

  18. Michael says:

    Are you guys really going to claim that the existence of English language signage for important public services in Iran is somehow indicative that they would choose to communicate with one another in English as a first preference?

    Who said it was a first preference? Did somebody claim that the majority of the protest signs were in English?

  19. Eric Florack says:

    Some of the other arguments I’ve seen here are fairly persuasive, but this one is just silly.

    Almost as silly as trying to convince them that they’re being silly when their minds are already made up, Phil. But for my part, that was well said.

  20. Alex Knapp says:

    Are you guys really going to claim that the existence of English language signage for important public services in Iran is somehow indicative that they would choose to communicate with one another in English as a first preference?

    No, I’m not surprised that a group of generally young, well-educated protesters, aware that Iran is a multi-ethnic state with many languages, would choose to make protest signs in a language that is recongized across the country and used for official purposes.

  21. An Interested Party says:

    Words matter and the President’s critics want him to speak up about the situation more. That’s it.

    Uh, no, that’s not it…it’s painfully obvious that some of the president’s political enemies are only too happy to use this issue to try to score some cheap political points against him…

  22. From Sully’s blog:

    Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, said: “Condemning violence is different from taking sides in Iran’s election dispute. People in Iran have told NIAC’s Iranian-American membership that they don’t want the US to get itself involved in the conflict, but they do want to see the government’s use of violence condemned… Calls by Republican lawmakers to explicitly side with a specific candidate or movement in Iran can be extremely harmful to that candidate or movement. If our intention is to help, we have to first listen to the people in Iran rather than to pretend to speak for them without ever having had consulted with them,” Parsi added.

    But, hey, why should we listen to the Iranian people when we can hear from the eternally wrong Mr. Krauthammer, the evidently senile Mr. McCain, and blustering, ill-informed ignoramuses from Pajama’s Media?

  23. Phil Smith says:

    Michael, the presence of ANY foreign-language protest signs can only be seen as an attempt to communicate with people outside Iran. You, and others, are arguing that the English protest signs aren’t aimed at the outside world. This position is one that can only be maintained by an abject partisan.

    I really don’t think you know what “lingua franca” means. Hint: it most emphatically doesn’t mean “second language that Iranians use to communicate with other Farsi speakers about the most important thing that has happened in their entire lives. Or anything at all, for that matter”. It means a third language that two parties who don’t share a common first language use. Not surprisingly, it used to be French. In much of Afghanistan, it’s Farsi. Just FYI.

    “Police” and “Ambulance” signs are in English for the same reason the protestors are holding up “Where is my vote?” sign in English: more foreigners who see that will recognize it than any other language. That might even include Arab speakers (as opposed to Farsi).

    Before some imbecile tries to pin any strawmen on me, I’m not arguing anything beyond the simple point that the protestors are concerned to let the outside world know what is happening. I do find it mildly, sadly hilarious that Alex and his platoon of commenters are so married to the notion that NOTHING the US can do is of value that they’ve committed themselves to such an obviously absurd position.

  24. Phil Smith says:

    People in Iran have told NIAC’s Iranian-American membership that they don’t want the US to get itself involved in the conflict, but they do want to see the government’s use of violence condemned

    Thank you, Mr. Reynolds, for endorsing the position I’ve been maintaining here for a week, in the teeth of much ad hominem, red herring, and strawman.

    After all, if Trita Parsi from the NIAC says it, it must be true.

  25. Phil Smith says:

    Alex, you make good arguments sometimes. This attempt to claim that the protesters don’t care what we – the outside world – think is just not one of them.

  26. The Strategic MC says:

    Because Hungary in 1954 worked so well?

    No, because Hungary in 1956 worked a hell of a lot better!

  27. Michael says:

    Michael, the presence of ANY foreign-language protest signs can only be seen as an attempt to communicate with people outside Iran.

    Oh? Was the presence of Spanish language signs used during the immigration protests here only an attempt to communicate with people outside of the USA?

    This position is one that can only be maintained by an abject partisan.

    There are simple, very plausible, factually and historically accurate reasons why Iranians would use English to communicate important messages internally. Parsimony wins. To say it is only to communicate with foreigners is absurd.

    I really don’t think you know what “lingua franca” means. Hint: it most emphatically doesn’t mean “second language that Iranians use to communicate with other Farsi speakers about the most important thing that has happened in their entire lives.

    Using English as a means to communicate between a Farsi and Kurdish (or Azeri, Arabic, etc) speaker does indeed make it a “lingua franca”.

  28. Alex Knapp says:

    This attempt to claim that the protesters don’t care what we – the outside world – think is just not one of them.

    Oh, I’m sure that on some level they might care, but I’ve seen no evidence that its up on their list of priorities. And I’ve seen no evidence at all that the majority of them want any foreign interference.

  29. Phil:

    We’ve made clear that we are watching, and we’ve made clear that we abhor violence. So I’ll mark you down as very supportive of Mr. Obama’s handling of this.

  30. Eric says:

    I really don’t think you know what “lingua franca” means.

    That is pedantic. Please stop.

    This attempt to claim that the protesters don’t care what we – the outside world – think is just not one of them.

    I don’t think Alex made that claim, Phil. This is what he said:

    There are really only a few, tiny actions that Americans can do that could make a difference. And that difference would only be very slight.

    Moreover:

    Before some imbecile tries to pin any strawmen on me, I’m not arguing anything beyond the simple point that the protestors are concerned to let the outside world know what is happening. I do find it mildly, sadly hilarious that Alex and his platoon of commenters are so married to the notion that NOTHING the US can do is of value that they’ve committed themselves to such an obviously absurd position.

    I don’t think anyone has made either of those arguments as well, Phil. Frankly, one could argue that you are indeed making strawman arguments, as no one has argued that the protestors aren’t interested in letting the outside world know what is going on; I’m pretty certain that they DO want the world to know. However, that doesn’t mean they want us to drop bombs or park a fleet of destroyers in the Persian Gulf.

    Alex and others have argued only that there is very little we can do. What Obama has done thus far–offering general support for fair elections, etc.–is about it. That’s all.

  31. Alex:

    As best I can tell the breakdown is this:

    Iranians: opposed to more US involvement.

    Sane people: opposed to more US involvement.

    Neo-con ****wits: support more US involvement.

  32. Phil Smith says:

    So I’ll mark you down as very supportive of Mr. Obama’s handling of this.

    Since his statement on Saturday, absolutely. You know, the one where he condemned the violence like us neo-con ****wits had been asking him to. That he reiterated more forcefully today.

    Eric: Alex stated quite plainly, in response to bithead, that the reason they were waving protest signs in English was because English is lingua franca in Iran. Since he clearly doesn’t know what lingua franca means, I pointed out that fact to him. He completely misunderstands why public signage in many countries (not just Iran) is in English. It is for the benefit of foreigners, not locals. Other than that, I’ll merely reiterate that Farsi is, in fact, the actual lingua franca for internal use not only for Iran but for much of Afghanistan. Not English.

    Alex and others have argued only that there is very little we can do. What Obama has done thus far–offering general support for fair elections, etc.–is about it.

    Alex’s very first sentence in this post was that Obama has already said too much. You’re not keeping up, apparently. You’ve completely missed two of Alex’s most egregiously stupid statements. I recommend – pedantically – that you re-read what Alex has actually said. At best, he’s incoherent.

    You know, the simple fact – as I said on either Friday or Saturday – is that these demands for “evidence of what the Iranian people want” are question-begging. It’s an information-controlled society at the best of times, and we have very little notion what they’re actually thinking right this minute. You have a quote or two, I have a quote or two. It’s idiocy for you to pretend that your one or two direct quotes is somehow probative.

  33. The Strategic MC says:

    I mean…what do these people really want Obama to do?

    Take a stand.

    While the orbit of the POTUS’ wobble is decreasing in size on a near daily basis, it’s still a wobble.

    To assert universal principles of freedom, justice and democracy is not taking sides. Unless, of course, these values are not held by the regime in Tehran.

  34. Phil:

    I am deeply troubled by the violence I’ve been seeing on television. I think 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 are rightfully troubled.

    Barack Obama, June 15.

    Did that somehow strike you as Obama not condemning violence? That was Monday.

  35. Phil Smith says:

    In my opinion, it was not forceful enough. His subsequent statements strike me as being much closer.

    Honest people can disagree on this. If I had continued to move the goalposts on what I expected from him, rather than noting (as I did twice on Saturday and at least twice today) that I agree with what he’s now saying, you could claim I was being dishonest or partisan. I’ll give Alex that much: he started off saying Obama’s initial position was just right, and he’s stuck to that. Others – not so much.

  36. Strategic:

    “To assert universal principles of freedom, justice and democracy is not taking sides.”

    You mean, like this?

    Barack Obama, Monday, June 15:

    I am deeply troubled by the violence I’ve been seeing on television. I think 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 are rightfully troubled.

    You know, you can use the Google to actually look things up.

  37. Phil:

    And now that Obama’s made a statement you like better, what exactly has changed?

    Did the ancient clerics in Qom hear the new statement and say, “Well, that’s it, we fold?”

    Did more brave demonstrators decide that now they were going into the streets — unlike what they’ve been doing for the last 10 days?

    You figure that all around the world people’s heads snapped around and they said, “Oh, my GOD! The Americans are actually opposed to Khamenei’s brown shirts beating hell out of people. I’m amazed!”

    Yay! Everything’s going to be better now!

    What Alex and I have both been saying is that rhetoric from us cannot help, it can only hurt. Thankfully our president has had the good sense to low-key this.

    Unfortunately neo-cons and McCain have been busily trying to convince the world that Mr. Obama is naive, weak, a pansy, a fool. Why they think this helps either the US or Iran is a mystery.

    Maybe you could explain.

    If I ever needed confirmation that McCain deserved to lose and Obama to win this situation has supplied it in spades.

  38. The Strategic MC says:

    You got me; he did say what I assumed that he had not.

    I hope that he keeps saying it and assumes a less passive tone.

  39. Phil Smith says:

    You’re asking the wrong person, Michael. You should be asking Obama. Why has the tenor of his commentary changed?

    Your argument holds, if it holds at all, whether the basiji are merely beating the protestors or murdering them. Somebody at the WH thinks it worthwhile to up the rhetoric a notch. And, just to rub your nose in your own argumentation, you quote Trita Parsi above as saying that the Iranian people want to see “the use of violence condemned”, and you endorse that viewpoint by implication.

    You’re so damn busy “proving” that Obama is Goldilocks that you can’t even keep track of your own self-contradiction.

  40. You’re asking the wrong person, Michael. You should be asking Obama. Why has the tenor of his commentary changed?

    The substance hasn’t changed. The tone is marginally more severe.

    Maybe Mr. Obama thought it wasn’t a good thing — at a time when we are shadowing a North Korean ship, at a time when we are still involved in two wars — to have neo-cons dishonestly and maliciously attacking his competence and strength six months into his administration.

    Maybe he needed some space to play his adult game so he handed some candy to the children in hopes they’d run off and play somewhere else. That’s all it was: candy.

    Like Alex I wish he’d stayed where he was. He moved about 10%. If that’s enough to get that senile buffoon McCain to go away and stop busily undercutting US policy in the midst of a crisis, maybe it’s a necessary trade-off.

    Maybe next time the children could watch, and wait, and see how the grown-ups handle things before leaping with both feet into the middle of a chess game.

  41. By the way, I don’t need to prove Obama is Goldilocks. Not when Mr. McCain has proved himself to be Chicken Little.

  42. Michael says:

    If that’s enough to get that senile buffoon McCain to go away and stop busily undercutting US policy in the midst of a crisis, maybe it’s a necessary trade-off.

    Let’s be clear, anybody can say whatever the hell they want about the President and his administration, it doesn’t undercut US policy and it doesn’t increase the threat or any current crisis. That’s as true now as it was when Bush was being criticized.

  43. Gustopher says:

    What I do not get, though, is exactly what some of his [Obama’s] critics on the right are clamoring for apart from a strongly worded condemnation that would make us feel good.

    Some of his critics on the right are simply professionally outraged, since outrage is their profession. No matter what Obama does it will be too little, too much or just wrong in their eyes (assuming they are even genuinely outraged, and not just using it to score political points).

    Why anyone takes the cheerleaders for the Outrage du Jour seriously is beyond me.

  44. G.A.Phillips says:

    It ‘s not to late, be like Reagen, at least in this Mr. president…….

  45. Matt says:

    Michael, the presence of ANY foreign-language protest signs can only be seen as an attempt to communicate with people outside Iran. You, and others, are arguing that the English protest signs aren’t aimed at the outside world. This position is one that can only be maintained by an abject partisan.

    “Police” and “Ambulance” signs are in English for the same reason the protestors are holding up “Where is my vote?” sign in English: more foreigners who see that will recognize it than any other language. That might even include Arab speakers (as opposed to Farsi).

    First off Farsi like a lot of other languages has picked up a lot of English words (some words don’t quite mean the same thing though). Currently Iran is very bilingual and as a result you see a LOT of English mixed in with Farsi. It’s a very large stretch to say they are targeting America specifically. I have no doubt some are hoping to be picked up by the international media but generally this is an Iranian problem in their minds. The source of my information comes via the Iranian side of my GF’s family (her dad is actually an immigrant). Naturally it’s pretty difficult to communicate currently though 🙁

    As for Obama I believe he’s almost stepping too far and needs to continue to tread lightly. We have messed in the lives of Iranians for the last +40ish years off and on. Everything from before the Shah mess to the Iran Iraq war (the chemical weapons we sold to Saddam is still very clearly remembered) there’s a history of us dicking in their affairs. On the flip side the GOV’t has been demonizing the USA since the revolution ended (full on propaganda TV shows and such displaying our evil vileness). These two parts results in a populace that doesn’t appreciate us much. My GF’s dad came here for college shortly before the revolution. He actually originally intended to head back to Tehran upon completing his education. Fortunately/unfortunately he was unable to return to Iran with his “American” education without risking death so he stayed here. Even to this day he hasn’t returned due to the persistent stigma of being “American”. Hopefully a regime change will alleviate that problem.

  46. anjin-san says:

    What I do not get, though, is exactly what some of his critics on the right are clamoring for apart from a strongly worded condemnation that would make us feel good

    The critics on the right are clamoring for a chance to hurt Obama. They don’t really give a damn how they do it.

    Most of the righties who are now suddenly so concerned with the welfare of the Iranian people were calling for us to carpet bomb Iran just a short while ago.

  47. sam says:

    @BitEric

    Almost as silly as trying to convince them that they’re being silly when their minds are already made up, Phil

    Heh. Rich, no?

  48. An Interested Party says:

    It ‘s not to late, be like Reagen, at least in this Mr. president…….

    Oh, so people in the Obama Administration should make an illegal arms deal and then the president can can claim ignorance of the scheme…is that how he should be like Reagan…

  49. davod says:

    “Oh, so people in the Obama Administration should make an illegal arms deal and then the president can can claim ignorance of the scheme…is that how he should be like Reagan…”

    Andy McCarthy at NRO’s Corner describes hope and outreach of a more sinister nature —

    Negotiating with Terrorists: The Obama administration ignores a longstanding — and life-saving — policy

    “…Even as the mullahs are terrorizing the Iranian people, the Obama administration is negotiating with an Iranian-backed terrorist organization and abandoning the American proscription against exchanging terrorist prisoners for hostages kidnapped by terrorists. Worse still, Obama has already released a terrorist responsible for the brutal murders of five American soldiers in exchange for the remains of two deceased British hostages…”

  50. An Interested Party says:

    Andy McCarthy, huh? Now there’s a reliable, unbiased source…maybe you should contact your congressman about starting impeachment proceedings…

  51. An Interested Party says:

    Andy McCarthy, huh? Now there’s a reliable, unbiased source…maybe you should contact your congressman about starting impeachment proceedings…

  52. An Interested Party says:

    Andy McCarthy, huh? Now there’s a reliable, unbiased source…maybe you should contact your congressman about starting impeachment proceedings…

  53. An Interested Party says:

    Oops…faulty connection…

  54. […] Obama Must Take Unspecified Action Now! (outsidethebeltway.com) […]

  55. Eric Florack says:

    Yeah, the firewall here does that sometimes, too. Annoying when it happens.