Instead of belligerence, President Obama offers carefully chosen words to Iranians and quotes Martin Luther King
By Gene Lyons
AP Photo/Ron Edmonds
President Obama holds a news conference at the White House Tuesday.
June 25, 2009
"First, do no harm." Contrary to popular belief, the phrase doesn't appear in the Hippocratic oath taken by physicians. At times like the present, however, it's tempting to think it should be added to the presidential oath of office.
With Iran in fearful turmoil whose outcome nobody can predict, some political rivals are urging President Barack Obama to make a theatrical gesture affirming that the United States remains, as Sen. John McCain put it, "the greatest nation in history." The Washington Post quoted a conservative intellectual lamenting that Obama "seems unwilling to aggressively project American global power, as if it were something to be ashamed of."
This would be the same McCain, incidentally, who announced last year that "we are all Georgians" during that country's brief, bloody confrontation with Russia. It was meaningless bravado, forgotten within days. One needn't doubt his sincerity to note that McCain's audience was purely domestic. Few in the rebellious former Soviet republic were deceived into thinking that American help was on the way.
So it is with the Iranian crisis, except more so. It should be lost on nobody -- and it definitely resonates in Tehran -- that most, if not all, of the U.S. "hardliners" urging President Obama to take sides in Iran's disputed election spent the preceding eight years urging President Bush to bomb them to smithereens.
Forcible "regime change" in Iran was a major theme of the 1999 "Project for a New American Century" statement signed by the Bush administration's leading neoconservatives -- Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, et al.
After 9/11, Iran rendered assistance to the United States in attacking al-Qaida, a mutual enemy, in Afghanistan. Bush nevertheless dubbed it part of his ill-fated "Axis of Evil," absurdly linking Iran to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, against whom it fought a catastrophic war during the 1980s.
McCain, it will be remembered, sang "Bomb, Bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" during his 2008 presidential campaign. GOP candidate Rudy Giuliani indicated he'd consider a preemptive nuclear strike on Tehran. Hardly a month passed without some Republican, along with Democrats like (now-Independent) Sen. Joe Lieberman, predicting an imminent U.S. or Israeli strike.
Inside Iran, the results were precisely the opposite of what conservatives claimed to want. The more categorically they condemned the Iranian regime, characterized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the "new Hitler" (the Persian George Wallace is more like it), called "Supreme Leader" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a megalomaniacal empire builder (Iran hasn't attacked anybody in 300 years), and depicted Iranians generally as an undifferentiated mob of Islamist fanatics, the stronger, and more paranoid, the regime grew.
How can anybody be surprised? What nation would react to constant threats from stronger powers by growing more open and tolerant of dissent? This is not to defend the Iranian regime or its suppression of citizens protesting Ahmadinejad's manifestly fraudulent reelection.
Notice, though, that one thing we're not hearing is Iranian, or Iranian-American, voices urging the United States to get involved. Quite the opposite. The dramatic events taking place in Iran are a homegrown manifestation of the tensions and divisions within Persian society, and of its uniquely complex and opaque political system. They won't be resolved overnight.
Having spent some time there in our youth, my wife and I have found ourselves transfixed by the images captured on Iranian cellphones and broadcast worldwide. These are the warm, passionate, dignified and courageous Persians we once knew.
What legitimacy can any government claim that resorts to murdering young women in the street? Approximately the same as officials in Alabama and Mississippi who set police dogs on civil rights marchers during the 1960s, as those responsible for shooting to death college students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University, or as individuals who welcomed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
This is, again, not to assert a false equivalence, merely to emphasize how absolutely fitting were Obama's carefully chosen words last week. "The Iranian government," he said, "must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost ... Martin Luther King once said, 'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.' I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples' [sic] belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness."
As both a religious leader and a martyr to freedom, Dr. King's name resonates with Iranians as no other American's would. It's that aspect of the American tradition that frightens the Iranian tyrants; empty threats only give them excuses.
© 2009 Gene Lyons. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Association
About the writer
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.