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June 25, 2009

The U.S. in Iran: "Stop Meddling"?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

One of the most oft-cited arguments against taking a “stronger” stand in support of the Iranian protestors has been the “kiss of death” issue – the notion that U.S. support damages those it intends to help. It's not necessarily incorrect, but I worry that it is both overstated and oversimplified. As Hilzoy argues:

I would have thought that speaking out in favor of the protestors would be about as good an idea as Britain's endorsing its favored candidate in our Presidential election in 1808, which is to say: it would be very, very unlikely to help its intended beneficiary.

There is no doubt that U.S. support can backfire. It is worth noting, though, that, despite the bad taste of the Bush years, many reformers, dissidents, and even those who claim to really, really dislike us (i.e. Islamists), have been calling on us to “meddle” and to take a more pro-active approach to supporting democracy in the Middle East. For example, a couple months ago, I was a co-convenor of an open letter to President Obama urging him to make support for democracy a top priority in the region. It has since been signed and supported by hundreds of Arab and Muslim activists and reformers from across the political spectrum – secularists, liberals, leftists, and Islamists (see here and here).

Even Islamist leaders activists – those most concerned with distancing themselves from the U.S.  – regularly call on America to meddle, by putting more pressure on Arab autocrats (see here for an interesting example). Mainstream Islamists also regularly express their desire to engage in dialogue with Americans. Presumably, this would be the ultimate “kiss of death.” And, as I wrote yesterday, the “kiss of death” hypothesis directly contradicts what happened in 2004-5 when the “embrace” of a very unpopular president didn’t seem to hurt the reform movement. If anything, it may have actually helped. Referring to U.S. pressure on the Mubarak regime, Abdel Menem Abul Futouh, one of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s leading figures and member of the group’s Guidance Bureau, remarked to me in a 2006 interview: “everyone knows it…we benefited, everyone benefited, and the Egyptian people benefited.”

So, yes, the “stop meddling” impulse is a valid one at times, but it should be noted that Arab and Muslim grievances revolve largely around the fact that we’ve meddled on the wrong side – the side of autocrats, and that we too often meddle by using a lot of pro-democracy rhetoric and then doing nothing to back it up. There are, however, other types of “meddling” that could conceivably be both in accordance with our interests, our ideals, and, just as important, the interests of reformers on the ground. I wish it was as easy as saying, let's "stop meddling" and be "neutral," but this is not very realistic, as 1) silence is, itself, is a form of meddling, 2) no one really has explained what a "non-meddling" US-Mideast policy would look like in practice, 3) we have - whether we like it or not - the ability to influence the outcomes of Middle East conflicts and disputes, and 4) we are, for better and worse, at least partly responsible for many of the said disputes. 


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