Among the summer’s most riveting events was the disputed Iranian election and the remarkable protests that followed it. The Iranian regime, using forceful and often brutal measures, successfully put down the protests, but it has been weakened, and significant fissures within the Iranian political and clerical elites have surfaced. Though its short-term ability to suppress opposition by force is unsurprising, the Iranian regime has tottered visibly. Its foundations are rotten, and the mid-range prospects for real change in Iran, with all that would mean for peace and security in the Middle East, look more promising than they have in decades. One is reminded of Aristotle’s observation that of all regimes, tyranny is the weakest and most short-lived.
President Obama’s reaction to these events was, I think, his most shameful moment in office. He initially made only the most cautious statements about the election and its aftermath; only belatedly and tepidly did he finally bring himself to offer any criticism of the regime or support for its opponents. One can appreciate his motives: the desire not to offend a government about whose nuclear ambitions he had just announced a willingness to negotiate, and a concern that America not be seen as an international behemoth meddling yet again in the internal politics of an Islamic nation. Indeed, the president’s most frequently sounded note was this warning against “meddling.”
In sharp contrast stood Obama’s willingness to “meddle” in Honduran domestic politics just a few weeks later. In this case, he followed the lead of Hugo Chavez in condemning the “coup” that removed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya from office and calling for his return, even threatening Honduras with a loss of US aid if it did not comply. As various commentators have amply documented—such as Miguel Estrada in the LA Times, Mary Anastasia O’Grady in the Wall Street Journal, and Christopher Caldwell in The Weekly Standard—Zelaya was attempting to establish his personal, extra-constitutional authority in Honduras, on the model of Chavez in Venezuela. The Honduran Supreme Court had ruled that Zelaya’s attempt to extend his term of office violated the country’s constitution. His ouster had the overwhelming support of the legislature, including his own party. To be sure, it would have been preferable to have arrested and tried him, rather than expelling him from the country. Doing so, however, would have involved serious political risks of violence and unrest. In any case, here was a clear instance of a poor country’s fragile democratic institutions uniting to confront a very real threat of socialist despotism.
No amount of hair-splitting can possibly explain why the Obama administration’s fierce denunciations of Hondurans’ defense of their democratic constitution did not constitute inappropriate “meddling”—denunciations to which, moreover, threatened consequences were attached—while even mild criticisms of the Iranian regime’s ruthless willingness to crush dissent would have. Clearly, the president’s reaction to events in Iran did not reflect a consistent aversion to meddling. His response involves errors at several levels. One is a substantive error in judgment: Obama failed to perceive correctly the historic opportunity for change in Iran, just as he failed to perceive correctly the character of events in Honduras. This criticism implies, incidentally, no wooly-headed optimism about the kinds of change we might have seen—might still see—in Iran. One need not expect the Ayatollah to become a European social democrat. But an Islamic democracy prepared to live at peace with the United States and Israel—a more realistic possibility in Iran, perhaps, than in any other country in the region—would be of tremendous geopolitical importance.
Another error is a confusion about what constitutes meddling: no nation that counts freedom of speech among its core ideals should concede that the mere expression of opinions constitutes impermissible “meddling” in another nation’s affairs or an infringement of its sovereignty.
Connected to this, however, is a third error, this one a confusion about the relationship between moral principle and political practice. The Obama version of Realpolitik implies that the affirmation of our principles is itself an offense to other countries and must therefore be avoided. Certainly there are times when it is better to remain silent than to speak one’s mind, and clearly Obama was concerned that this was such a time—that any clear articulation of American support for democratic protest would offend the Iranian regime (which, to be sure, is easily offended!) and endanger his hopes for negotiations. If so, however, the fault would have been entirely Iran’s. Criticism of another government’s principles and actions is by no means incompatible with diplomatic relations, bilateral talks, and even direct negotiations about, for instance, nuclear technology. Indeed, if our foreign relations are to be based on honesty, transparency, and mutual respect—as Obama normally claims—then surely we owe it to our international partners to say what we think at critical junctures. The Iranian government, after all, is hardly shy about saying what it thinks of us.
Ronald Reagan’s approach toward the Soviet Union provides an instructive contrast on this point. No one ever accused Reagan of being excessively unwilling to criticize the Soviets; to the contrary, the critic of the “evil empire” was repeatedly chastised, loudly, in both political and media circles, for being overly harsh in his public rhetoric. Yet Reagan’s example shows clearly that such criticism is fully compatible with a willingness to work together where interests are shared and to cooperate for the sake of peace, even in unexpected ways. Reagan’s statements of American principle were combined with a willingness to respect the political realities of his world. Indeed, he showed how rhetoric can be a powerful tool of American interests in instances where genuine meddling would be inappropriate or impossible.
In all of American political history, Abraham Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery provides the finest example of political principle guiding the messiness of democratic practice—of what we might call, to use traditional language, statesmanlike prudence. Though the bicentennial of his birth has put a damper on Lincoln-bashers, it has been fashionable in recent years to criticize Lincoln for his insufficiently enlightened attitudes on racial matters. Just as the radical abolitionists of his day scorned Lincoln’s slow but steady approach toward correcting the injustice of slavery, contemporary critics have taken him to task for patiently engaging the views of his own constituents and fellow citizens. These critics suggest, anachronistically, that Lincoln should instead have held positions that only came to command widespread American support more than a century later. But an examination of Lincoln’s statements on race and slavery reveals remarkable clarity and consistency about the critical issues at stake: slavery was a moral evil; it violated the nation’s founding principles; and therefore, while the national government lacked constitutional authority to eliminate it where it already existed, slavery should not be permitted to spread.
Indeed, Lincoln’s refusal to cloud the moral wrongness of slavery can fairly be called the engine that drove his spectacular rise to political greatness by sparking his return to politics in 1854. That was the year that Lincoln’s Illinois rival, Democrat Stephen Douglas, successfully led the fight for congressional passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which overturned the Missouri Compromise by making slavery in the territories a matter of “popular sovereignty”—that is, allowing the inhabitants of the territories to “establish slavery, or exclude it, as they may see fit.” Lincoln not only foresaw the act’s on-the-ground consequences—that pro- and anti-slavery forces would move into the territories, causing political violence as both sides sought to tip the demographic balance in their favor—he also repeatedly objected to its central ethical flaw: it treated slavery as a matter of moral indifference. “This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery,” he declared in his great speech at Peoria in October of 1854, “I can not but hate.” Lincoln zeroed in on the key question of black Americans’ humanity. “Judge [Douglas] has no very vivid impression that the negro is a human; and consequently has no idea that there can be any moral question in legislating about him. In his view, the question of whether a new country shall be slave or free, is a matter of as utter indifference, as it is whether his neighbor shall plant his farm with tobacco, or stock it with horned cattle.” And he drove home the utter incompatibility of such a view with the principles of America’s Founding:
[I]f the negro is a man, is it not to that extent a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal”; and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.
To the contrary, the “leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism” is this: “that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.”
It would be difficult to find a more unambiguous declaration of moral principle that should guide political action. And it must be conceded—to return to my original topic by giving Obama his due—that the Southern states did indeed regard Lincoln as “meddling” in the institution of slavery. It is important to point out, therefore, that Lincoln’s clear statements of principle were combined with a persistent and remarkable willingness to search for compromise solutions that did justice to the interests of all involved, both North and South. This is revealed not only by his support (a favorite target of critics today) for hapless recolonization schemes for sending freed blacks to Africa. We see it also, for example, in his long-held belief that emancipation programs should include compensation for the owners of freed slaves. We see it in his consistent position that the federal government lacked authority to interfere with slavery where it already existed in the Southern states, and in his unwillingness to free slaves until doing so (in the Emancipation Proclamation) could be justified on the basis of the president’s constitutional war-making power as commander-in-chief. And of course we see it most notably in his great Second Inaugural’s refusal to condemn or seek revenge upon his opponents, calling instead for malice toward none and charity toward all, and even insisting to his northern audience that somehow all Americans shared the guilt for slavery in the eyes of the Almighty, who now “gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came.”
There is a lesson here about statesmanship in a democracy, which—as Lincoln reminds us—requires both principle and its prudent application. But the former is indispensable, for unless the principles are clear, their application will be faulty. Democracy requires leadership, not management. What was missed in Iran was an opportunity to remind public opinion, both at home and abroad, of those truths we hold to be self-evident and of their continued relevance in the contemporary world. Such a reminder cannot, in and of itself, constitute inappropriate “meddling” in another country’s affairs.
We know that Obama promised hope and change; we know that he has grand legislative ambitions. During the campaign, those ambitions appeared shaped by an expansive and inclusive vision of equality—not red states, and blue states, but the United States—one that inspired Americans across the political spectrum and could plausibly lay claim to the Lincolnian tradition. In office, however, the practical politician in Obama has seemed much less at ease with the would-be principled statesman. His failure of vision in Iran—his confused willingness to concede that verbal objection to violent suppression of dissent might be objectionable “meddling”—provided a vivid illustration, especially when contrasted with his bizarrely opposite reaction to events in Honduras, of our president’s growing difficulty in combining the practical necessities of his office with his role as a molder of public opinion, the role in which Lincoln excelled. This difficulty has become increasingly evident in our domestic politics, as Obama gradually has lost control over the debates on health care and the budget deficit. His current struggles were probably, to some extent, inevitable, especially for one with so little experience in elected office—governing is harder than campaigning. But the one thing Americans thought they were getting was a leader, someone with a vision of the future and capable of inspiring us all to get there. For a refresher course in democratic statesmanship, the president might want to dust off his biographies of Lincoln.
Peter Meilaender is Associate Professor of Political Science at Houghton College.