Again, Why the Diffidence?

by Victor Davis Hanson

NRO’s The Corner

Obama — the Manichean?

Of all the puzzling reasons one can adduce both for Barack Obama recent serial apologies abroad, and now his strange silence about human-rights abuses from Venezuela to Iran, I think one of the most likely is his Manichean notion of world affairs — one also reflected in most of the curricula of our major universities.

The binary oppressor/victim narrative goes something like this: The United States for the last half-century — through its embrace of neocolonialism and imperialism, and then again through its birthing of globalized capitalism — is at fault for most of the mess outside the West.

We as the bad guys impose, dictate, exploit, ignore, and manipulate the more noble Other to such a degree that he is forced to lash out in understandable, though often dangerous ways.

This is a sort of all-inclusive worldview that in postmodern fashion pits those with “power” against those without it. And in such a simplistic bipolar world, only a few gifted Western elite intellectuals, of superior intelligence, empathy, and insight, can reach across the divide, understand the Other, and find common ground, by accommodating the West to alternate paradigms of politics, culture, and economic and social life — different of course, albeit not intrinsically in any sense inferior.

Then something messy comes along that doesn’t fit the neat paradigm like the purple-finger elections in Iraq, Tiananmen Square, or the most recent democracy demonstrations in Iran that confound that easy calculus. Just when you are singularly prepared, in bold face-to-face diplomacy, to understand the historic grievances of an unshaved, Nehru-coated Ahmadinejad, and to make the necessary apologies and accommodations, thousands of Iranians hit the street in Levis, with English-lettered protest signs, hitting their cell-phones and chanting Western-like protests again indigenous Iranian theocratic fascism.

So how can it be, that anyone would wish to model their politics after Western-style free speech and consensual government, given our culpability for so many global pathologies? The even weirder result that follows is that we become skeptical of the pro-Western Columbian, Israeli, Iraqi — and Iranian — as somehow less “authentic” by the very fact of his good will to, and admiration of, us (contrary to everything one has been taught in post-colonial classes).

In that vein, Obama is almost more at ease with virulent anti-Westerners, whose grievances Obama has long studied (and perhaps in large part entertained), and whose estrangement alone offers opportunity for Obama’s sophisticated multicultural insight and singular narcissistic magnanimity.

An Inadequate Response to an Illegitimate Regime

Obama’s Iran policy has been an ethical and practical embarrassment from the beginning. Moral equivalence? The president put Mousavi — and, by extension, the crowds in the street — and Ahmadinejad on the same moral plain.

Naïveté? For the first few days the administration and its flaks in the media issued pompous “in the know” suggestions to the effect that Ahmadinejad may have “really” won the election.

Straw men? We were supposed to think that those who from the beginning saw the issues at stake and supported the reformers with strong words of encouragement were some sort of interventionist neocons who wanted to do another Iraq-like invasion, or would egg on reluctant demonstrators only to betray them in Hungary-like fashion.

Naked realpolitik? We openly stated that we were unsure who would win, with the obvious inference that we are hedging our bets at the expense of values and principles. Our moral outrage, in the words of the president himself, hinges on the outcome of the struggle at hand.

Hesitancy? Over some ten days, we’ve seen split-the-difference, 50/50, “debate going on” fluff, as if risking one’s life to promote freedom is just a narrative that competes with another from thugs who wish to crush them.

Diplomatic confusion? No one apparently appreciates the stakes at hand, that there was an outside chance that many of the key issues of our time — from lunantic nuclear proliferation to terrorist susbidies to undermine neighboring democracies — are in play, and worth the risk of strong moral condemnation of the Iranian theocracy. It is almost as if this administration assumes a nuclear Iran is a done deal, and is now more worried about scrambling to come up with plans B and C.

Dissimulation? We are to believe that outreach to the Iranian mullahs and Islam in general, in the Al-Arabiya interview, the Cairo speech, and the video sent to Ahmadinejad explain the popular uprising against a theocratic radical Islamist dictatorship — rather than the intrinsic desire for freedom among millions deprived of freedom by a 7th-century ruling Islamist clique, not to mention the presence of a still vibrant Shiite-majority democracy next-door in Iraq? What logic — speaking out in praise of Islam appealed to those opposing radical Islam to such an extent that then going silent in their hour of need helped them even more.

Sorta Sums It All Up

From this weeks’s news: “Reacting to Obama’s comment Tuesday that he is ‘appalled and outraged’ by crackdowns in Iran, Ahmadinejad said, ‘Mr Obama made a mistake to say those things . . . our question is why he fell into this trap and said things that previously Bush used to say.'”

This revelation of theocratic hurt, surprise, and hubris actually explains a lot: Iran — given the six months (or longer?) of Obama’s both backdoor and overt efforts to normalize relations — believes (a) that it has an understanding now with the Obama administration that normal relations with the U.S. trump all other American concerns, and more or less gives the regime a green light to do what it wishes — hence Ahmadinejad’s shock at Obama’s belated and unexpected criticism; (b) this was quite different from the past administration, which made it clear the U.S. was nauseated by Iran’s nefarious activities and didn’t care much to normalize unless and until it reentered the family of nations and ceased being a terrorist state (at home and abroad); (c) Iran doesn’t much care what the U.S. has said, now or in the past, and apparently assumes that Obama acted out of his accustomed character (“a mistake”) and will soon “express . . . regret.” I suppose all our videos, apologies, and global addresses to the Muslim world at least achieved an Iranian admission that America now has acted out its new character and is beginning to resemble its old character, which translates into something like “Bush was tough on us, you aren’t — so what’s going on with this ‘appalled’ stuff?”

Meanwhile, as the mullahs begin the long, drawn-out work of hunting down and doing away with dissidents in the wee hours of the night, how can an American president be seen with, talk to, or reach out toward a police state in the systematic process of state-sanctioned terror against its own?

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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