Barack Obama apparently has more in common with his reviled predecessor, George W. Bush, than anyone on the left would like to believe. We've seen, of course, some grounding in Obama's national security policy since the election that has prompted him -- and other Democrats -- to maintain many of the Bush era's tactical policies in the war on terror (oops -- I meant "the fight against man-made disasters".) And while it true that he has recently sidled left on many issues -- releasing Gitmo detainees to Bermuda and Palau so that they can bask in the sun, for example -- the Obama administration has not gone nearly as far in rolling back the Bush national security regime than the left-wing base of the party has wanted. But the Obama administration's response to the Iranian elections shows a different kind of "Bushism", one that is less about policy and more about temperament and judgment. It seems that Obama's tepid response to the protests and the obvious fraud in the results may be a response to the president's simple inability to adjust his strategy to new information on the ground. As Robert Kagan writes in the Washington Post today, Obama has a plan for dealing with Iran, and it is based on having a stable leadership in place:
One of the great innovations in the Obama administration's approach to Iran, after all, was supposed to be its deliberate embrace of the Tehran rulers' legitimacy. In his opening diplomatic gambit, his statement to Iran on the Persian new year in March, Obama went out of his way to speak directly to Iran's rulers, a notable departure from George W. Bush's habit of speaking to the Iranian people over their leaders' heads. As former Clinton official Martin Indyk put it at the time, the wording was carefully designed "to demonstrate acceptance of the government of Iran."
This approach had always been a key element of a "grand bargain" with Iran. The United States had to provide some guarantee to the regime that it would no longer support opposition forces or in any way seek its removal. The idea was that the United States could hardly expect the Iranian regime to negotiate on core issues of national security, such as its nuclear program, so long as Washington gave any encouragement to the government's opponents. Obama had to make a choice, and he made it. This was widely applauded as a "realist" departure from the Bush administration's quixotic and counterproductive idealism.
It would be surprising if Obama departed from this realist strategy now, and he hasn't...Whatever his personal sympathies may be, if he is intent on sticking to his original strategy, then he can have no interest in helping the opposition. His strategy toward Iran places him objectively on the side of the government's efforts to return to normalcy as quickly as possible, not in league with the opposition's efforts to prolong the crisis.
So it appears that the tail (Obama's original strategy of engaging Iran's hard-line government in diplomacy) is now wagging the dog -- namely the unprecedented grass-roots democratic movement that is collectively risking life and limb on the streets of Tehran. The goal of the U.S. government should be to encourage and empower true democracy in Iran -- not to legitimize the totalitarian Islamic regime that is in power. By the luck of the Iranian regime's sheer arrogance, that opportunity now exists. But Obama is too vested in his original course of action to change, and can't seem to see that a new approach might now be warranted. He's following a strategy that is almost certain to fail; most people can clearly see that the prospects of real progress with the theocracy in Iran is poor at best. It's a double down on a bad hand.
The parallels with Bush in Iraq in 2005-2006 are striking. During the height of the insurgency and the sectarian strife that followed, Bush stuck far too long with the failed "attrition" strategy of Gens. Abizaid and Casey, preferring to double down on a bad hand of his own. The tactics of the American military in Iraq were clearly not working; month-after-month the evidence was coming in that things were getting worse and not better. Bush knew that his strategy in Iraq was failing, and yet seemed paralyzed to make the kind of strong, decisive decision to change that he was known for. Not until early 2007 did the surge take root with real changes in tactics, strategy and personnel. For far too long, Bush didn't have the judgment and temperament to look closely at the results of his previous policies. The result was that the successful surge of 2007-2008 could have likely been done earlier, in 2004-2005, with much better results for both America and Iraq.
Obama is in the midst of a similar paralysis; he needs a "surge" on Iran, but he is afraid to tear up his script. His policy of "negotiating without preconditions" with Iran is a cornerstone of his foreign policy plan, and his deep belief in the power of his own diplomatic skills in getting some trans formative change from Iran is dominant. Its where hubris meets naivete -- and its a dangerous place for America to be.