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.
The three-minute message (released in English but with Farsi subtitles) can be viewed here or read here. It’s no understatement to call it a rhetorical masterstroke.
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.”
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