We’re all welcoming the arrival of spring, but in the Persian world, it’s not just a change of seasons, it’s a major holiday, a new year celebration known as Nowruz. And President Obama seized that occasion today to release a public message to the people and government of Iran, focusing on the theme of new beginnings in relations between Iran and the United States.
Newsweek‘s Fareed Zakaria wrote a column last week that elicited considerable debate, in which he framed Obama as moving to reverse the Bush administration’s “imperial foreign policy”:
As George W. Bush’s term ended, he had few defenders left in the world of foreign policy. Mainstream commentators almost unanimously agreed the Bush years had been marked by arrogance and incompetence. “Mr. Bush’s characteristic failing was to apply a black-and-white mind-set to too many gray areas of national security and foreign affairs,” The Post editorialized. … There was hope that President Obama would abandon some of his predecessor’s rigid ideological stances.
In its first 50 days, the Obama administration has naturally been consumed by the economic crisis, but it has nevertheless made some striking shifts in foreign policy. Obama announced the closure of Guantanamo and the end of any official sanction for torture. He gave his first interview as president to an Arab network and spoke of the importance of respect when dealing with the Muslim world — a gesture that won him rave reviews from normally hostile Arab journalists and politicians.
These initial steps are all explorations in the right direction — deserving of praise, one might think. But no, the Washington establishment is mostly fretting, dismayed in one way or another by these moves. The conservative backlash has been almost comical in its fury. …
The problem with American foreign policy goes beyond George Bush. It includes a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement. Other countries can have no legitimate interests of their own. The only way to deal with them is by issuing a series of maximalist demands. This is not foreign policy; it’s imperial policy. And it isn’t likely to work in today’s world.
Zakaria’s certainly right about the overreaction from the establishment. It’s as if, after years of demonstrating how their approach = Epic Fail, the neocons nevertheless can’t fathom the idea that someone might want to try a different approach. For my own part, though, I’ve found Obama’s foreign policy to be not nearly as divergent from Bush’s as it ought to be: too much of it seems like a continuation rather than a repudiation. For every overture toward Russia about useless missile shields on on side, there’s a risky buildup in Afghanistan on the other.
Nevertheless, as Zakaria accurately notes, Obama has at least taken some “steps… in the right direction.” And this is a huge one. As Glenn Greenwald puts it, “it’s inconceivable that anything like this video would have been possible at any point during the last eight years.”
The timing was superb. On a symbolic level, it’s a holiday, a time when people celebrate peace and togetherness and are uniquely open to overtures like this. On a practical level, Iran is eleven weeks away from national elections, and a shift in tone from the U.S. can only help the prospects of the reformers who are running against the conservative Ahmadinejad regime… but at the same time by speaking now rather than closer to those elections, or afterward, Obama makes it clear that he’s not trying to manipulate the election or hinge improved relations on its outcome; that in fact there are fruitful conversations to be had even with the conservative government.
The rhetoric was brilliant. Obama’s message abandons the bellicose and belligerent attitude of the Bush years, the swaggering shaking of sticks while withholding carrots. It underscores our common humanity, a concept Bush (“with us or against us”) never seemed to understand even on a domestic stage, never mind an international one. It emphasizes respect for Iranian culture, offering legitimate praise for something of which Iranians are rightly proud. And it speaks both to the Iranian people and to its government:
…So in this season of new beginnings I would like to speak clearly to Iran’s leaders. We have serious differences that have grown over time. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.
You, too, have a choice. The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right — but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.
So on the occasion of your New Year, I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek. It’s a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce.
It puts everything on the table—thirty years of animosity and antagonism—and holds out the hope that all of these issues can be resolved through talk, rather than violence. It emphasizes hope rather than fear, reconciliation instead of recrimination. And it does it all while neatly sidestepping the “weakness” and “appeasement” memes that right-wingers persistently see in diplomatic overtures (follow those links with a strong stomach)… on the contrary, it emphasizes that the principles and concerns of the U.S. (and the international community, which is not neglected as in the Bush years) are legitimate and must be acknowledged, that respect has to be mutual.
In domestic political terms, this message follows up on Obama’s campaign promises to take a new approach and seek meaningful talks with Iran, and does so at the highest level… without making any concessions or missteps that can be held against him. Our expectations and concerns are not abandoned, but neither are they “preconditions” for dialogue. And it reminds the American audience that Iran as a nation is not “evil,” is not even our enemy… it is merely a country with perspectives that differ from our own, the home of millions of ordinary people saddled with a government that doesn’t always best serve their best interests.
Initial reactions from Iran have been cautious but optimistic, as one might expect, asking for actions in line with his words. What will come of this remains to be seen, of course. But Obama has opened a door that was closed. He has defied those, on both sides, who “insist that we be defined by our differences.” From a situation where there was much to lose, he has created one where there is now much to be gained.Tags: diplomacy, international, Iran, Obama