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June 16, 2009

Keep Your Powder Dry
Posted by Michael Cohen

When it comes to Iran, no one really know what is happening and how it will play out -  point reinforced by this amazing thread from Andrew Sullivan that contains dozens and dozens of Twitter posts from Iran. In talking to some Iranian friends yesterday it seems clear that the confusion we are feeling here is being felt by those on the ground.

For those looking for the most up to date information I highly recommend checking out Nico Pitney's site on HuffPo as well Andrew Sullivan and Laura Rozen over at the Cable and the NiacInsight blog. These pictures from the Boston Globe website are deeply moving, particularly number 28 and 29.

As the drama unfolds in Iran, the question being asked here in the States is how should the US respond. This morning President Obama offered some well-considered words:

"I want to start off by being very clear that it is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran’s leaders will be; that we respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran . .  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, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was. And they should know that the world is watching. And particularly to the youth of Iran 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." 


This is very smart: Stand up for democratic processes, decry the violence taking place, remind the mullahs that the world is watching, but above all avoid taking sides in the dispute or openly attacking the regime in Tehran. The President's statement is reflective of a man who understands the limitations of American power and rhetoric.


But the same, unfortunately cannot be said for Obama's 2008 campaign rival, John McCain:

We lead; we condemn the sham, corrupt election. We do what we have done throughout the Cold War and afterwards, we speak up for the people of Tehran and Iran and all the cities all over that country who have been deprived of one of their fundamental rights. We speak out forcefully, and we make sure that the world knows that America leads - and including increased funding for part of the Farda, Iranian free radio.


And then this from George Packer over at the New Yorker blog:

For the Obama Administration to continue parsing equivocal phrases serves no purpose other than to make it look feckless. A stronger American stand—taken, as much as possible, in concert with European countries and through multilateral organizations—would do more to improve America’s negotiating position than weaken it . . . The tens of millions of Iranians who voted for change and are the long-term future of that country will always remember what America said and did when they put their lives on the line for their values.


Let's be very clear: what is happening in Tehran is not about us. It's about the people on the streets risking their lives so that their voices will be heard. If we want to help those people the best thing we can do is speak softly and wait for the drama to play itself out. If we are appearing to take sides and if we are seen as openly supporting the opposition movement we won't be doing them any good at all. As Spencer Ackerman perceptively notes, "American rhetorical support will immediately become a cudgel in the hands of Ahmadinejad."

To turn John McCain's silly argument around, leadership is not simply about beating ones chest and taking strong moral stands, it's about listening to those on the ground in Iran and having a nuanced understanding about the impact of American statements in a country where there is no great love loss for the United States, particularly among supporters of Ahmadinejad. The course being recommended by Packer and McCain would have the ironic of hurting the cause of the people they are seeking to support.

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Comments

The problem for me with the Iranian situation goes beyond whether it is "about us" or "about them". The problem is that it is extremely hard even to figure out what is actually happening in Iran. I have been following this story about as close as it is possible for someone sitting here in America to follow it, but I have to tell you that, right now, I really don't have the slightest f***ing idea what is real. If people like Packer and Andrew Sullivan believe they have reliable and accurate information about what is actually happening in Iran, perhaps they could come forward with it and make a clear case.

What I see at Sullivan's site are long strings of Twitter tweets. I have absolutely no idea where any of these tweets are coming from, who their authors are, what those authors' purposes are, or how much information those authors have. I don't know what is truth and what is hoax; what is a simple report of an observation and what is a manufactured piece if propaganda. It's all noise and no signal.

I see photos of pro-Mousavi demonstrations and pro-Ahmadinejad demonstrations. I see photos of some people who have been injured or shot. I have no idea what any of this stuff means. Is the person with blood on his shirt a peaceful demonstrator for his own conception of freedom? Or is he a rock throwing rioter put down by riot police. Beats me.

I don't think we even know who won the Iranian election. Now maybe Packer and Sullivan don't really give a damn about who won the Iranian election. Maybe they think that the mere existence of the chaos, whatever its source and cause, is a great opportunity to prod, provoke and support an opportunistic, cataclysmic revolution against the dread mullahcracy in Iran. But as for me .... who won the election is a pretty damn important issue.

After two terms of Bush, Americans are in no mood to get played once again. And you would think Packer and Sullivan, in particular, would have learned their lesson about getting caught up in excited constructions of a personal political reality based on scant and garbled information. On the other hand, maybe there are constructive things we could do if we knew what was going on. More information please ... and less preaching.

I would guess that the before-majority tends to reflect a consensus opinion, the arguments in favor of which are probably more commonly encountered in everyday life. Most of the arguments and ideas that are new to the audience would then be coming from the anti-consensus side, so more weakly-decided people would break for the side bringing previously unconsidered information to the table.

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What I see at Sullivan's site are long strings of Twitter tweets. I have absolutely no idea where any of these tweets are coming from, who their authors are, what those authors' purposes are, or how much information those authors have. I don't know what is truth and what is hoax; what is a simple report of an observation and what is a manufactured piece if propaganda. It's all noise and no signal.

I see photos of pro-Mousavi demonstrations and pro-Ahmadinejad demonstrations. I see photos of some people who have been injured or shot. I have no idea what any of this stuff means. Is the person with blood on his shirt a peaceful demonstrator for his own conception of freedom? Or is he a rock throwing rioter put down by riot police. Beats me.
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