President Obama finds himself in a bit of a bind when it comes to Iran. And the dilemma he faces is not unlike that faced by many policy makers when it comes to the Middle East. Who do you support, the government, or the people?
When he ran for the Presidency, Obama vowed to negotiate with Iran’s leaders with respect to such contentious issues as their nuclear weapons program, and their support for terrorist groups. And at the time, the prospect of using diplomacy as an olive branch, seemed to be a reasonable approach, as contrasted with President Bush’s inclination to wield big sticks, with no carrots in sight.
However, in the wake of Iran’s most recent election, and in light of the protests and violent clashes which are taking place there, even as we speak, would negotiations with the newly elected government confer legitimacy to a regime whose legitimacy is being contested by a great many people on the street? And yet, if you ignore the current opportunities to negotiate, even with an unsavory regime, do you lose the chance to find a diplomatic solution to what could otherwise result in war?
But then again, if you fail to give moral support to the protesters, do you run the risk of betraying your ideals, and alienating the people, for that matter, by espousing the cause of freedom here at home, while failing to do so abroad. Do you dare to play politics as usual when freedom is at stake? Is it hypocritical to cherish freedom, on the one hand, but to withhold support from those fighting for it, on the other? And is there a price to pay for such hypocrisy?
In a way, President Obama’s hesitation about supporting the protesters in Iran is symbolic of a much larger picture, whereby Western leaders find themselves torn between maintaining quiet deals and understandings that have been struck with non-democratic governments in the Middle East, and their supposed commitment in the West to the ideals of democratic reform and the right of all people to be free. The gap that often exists between pragmatic arrangements, especially those securing the free-flow of oil, and the moral obligation to empower people in their quest for human rights, is not an easy gap to bridge, and the decision is often made to sacrifice human rights on the alter of what is “real,” and what is “necessary.”
And yet, as is becoming quite obvious in Iran, the voice of the people resonates loudly around the world, and is not easily silenced, even by the most repressive of regimes, using the harshest means of intimidation. Especially now, in the time of the internet, and you-tube, and twitter, and all the other varied tools of instant and ubiquitous communication, the natural inclination to speak out cannot be stifled easily. And as people around the world begin to speak to one another, the collective wisdom of the common man will begin to coalesce, and to make itself heard, and known, and believed, and a new ideology will be born, based on such ancient common sense principles as: the right to be free, the right to speak out and to be heard, the right to pursue happiness, and the right to search for justice whenever justice is denied.
So what advice can we give President Obama as he navigates through these treacherous waters? Perhaps we could tell him, as he takes everything into consideration, that freedom may not always be easy to support, nor practical in the short-run, but it is a moral imperative for many around the world, just as it is for Americans here at home. And therefore, we owe it to those struggling on the street, and to our long-term strategic interests, to find a way to lend our support to the cause of freedom, and to make it clear to all the dictators out there, that sooner or later, they will have no choice but to accommodate the will of the people, and their yearning to be free. It doesn’t have to mean chaos. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean war. It just means that society will only find its peace when the fundamental aspirations of the people are taken into consideration, and become a permanent fixture in the political landscape.
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