When I saw this morning that William Bennett, of all people, has joined the growing chorus criticizing President Obama on Iran, it put me over the edge.
Coming as it did on top of John McCain’s criticism on Face the Nation Sunday, which added to a week’s worth of complaint, much of it coming from Republicans and right-wing blowhards.
“He is the President of the United States,” Bennett said on CNN. “If he will not side with these young people against a religious autocracy that is beating the hell out of people, what is the point of being the moral leader of the free world?”
Hm. That’s interesting.
Let’s remember, these critics are the same people who, during the election campaign, harshly condemned Obama’s position that he would end the Bush policy of isolating Iran, and, instead, open direct talks.
Here is what William Bennett said, writing with Seth Leibsohn in the National Review in June:
Barack Obama’s stance toward Iran is as troubling as it is dangerous. By stating and maintaining that he would negotiate with Iran, ‘without preconditions,’ and within his first year of office, he will give credibility to, and reward for his intransigence, the head of state of the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism. Such a meeting will also undermine and send the exact wrong signal to Iranian dissidents.
Wow, Bill. You nailed that one on the head.
Bush labeled Iran part of the Axis of Evil. His war toppled Saddam Hussein, immeasurably strengthening Iran’s hand. Under his administration, American diplomats worldwide were prohibited from dealing with their Iranian peers.
“The result,” Helene Cooper wrote in the NY Times’ Week in Review yesterday, “according to many experts here and in Iran, was that Iranians, including reformers, swallowed their criticism of the hard-line regime and united against the common enemy. Iranians with reformist sympathies even began advising Americans to stop openly supporting them, lest that open them to attack as pawns of America.”
But don’t take Helene’s word for it.
Here’s Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who knows a bit more about Iran than Bill Bennett:
“Behind closed doors, most Iranian officials have long recognized that the ‘death to America’ culture of 1979 is bankrupt, and that Iran will never achieve its enormous potential as long as relations with the United States remain adversarial,” he told Cooper. “If Tehran’s hardliners are incapable of making nice with an American president named Barack Hussein Obama who preaches mutual respect and wishes them a happy Nowruz, it’s pretty obvious the problem is in Tehran, not Washington.”
Against the advice of just about every conservative voice, including Bill Bennett’s, Obama came to office promising direct talks with Iran, without preconditions. Once in office, he videotaped a new year’s message to the Iranian people and leaders, referring to Iran as the “Islamic Republic,” and quoting a Persian poet who died seven centuries ago. He removed the ban on U.S. diplomats dealing with their Iranian peers worldwide. And, as Cooper points out, in Cairo, he took the unprecedented step of taking responsibility for the U.S. role in the 1953 overthrow of the Iranian government.
All of which sent a crucial message to those inside Iran who are now taking to the streets en masse.
But don’t take my word for it.
“Afshin Molavi,” Cooper writes, “an Iran expert at the New America Foundation, said that the vast majority of Iranians today want better relations with the United States, and middle-class Iranians in particular, he said, were hoping that the Iranian regime would capitalize on Mr. Obama’s much talked about unclenched fist.
“Even though Mr. Moussavi shared the leadership’s commitment to Iran’s nuclear program, many middle-class Iranians believed that he would be better able than Mr. Ahmadinejad to strike a warmer relationship with Mr. Obama, said Mr. Molavi, author of ‘Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran’ (Norton). ‘When the election results were announced, for the Iranian middle class, it was not only an insult and an injustice, but it dashed their hopes for a U.S.-Iran rapprochement and told them that they would continue to be isolated in the world.'”
Yet Bennett, in his infinite wisdom, has the audacity to go on CNN’s State of the Union yesterday and say this of Obama’s Iran response: “He needs to say it in no uncertain terms. This is very disappointing, as far as I’m concerned. This was the president to whom the whole world was looking. . . . This is a president about hope, he’s about the future. This is a guy who was a community organizer. He missed it. He missed the opportunity.”
How thick are the blinders?
How do I put this in simply? Obama’s smug critics have already been proven wrong. When Bill Bennett wrote in the National Review one year ago, “Barack Obama’s position on negotiating with U.S. enemies betrays a profound misreading of history,” it was Bennett who was misreading history. The moment was ripe for rapprochement, and Obama seized it.
President Obama did not spur this revolution, and he has taken great pains not to be perceived as fomenting it. But, as a conservative friend of mine — also critical of Obama’s response — admitted in an email the other day: “In the end, much of this has to do with Obama. The protests would not have happened without Obama.”
It is because of President Obama that this opportunity exists.
It’s high time for his right wing critics to recognize this. To recognize that the hard-line, warmongering approach of their standard bearer helped create this mess in the first place. And to give this president who has already shown such good judgment and instincts in opening the door to Iran — at great political risk — the benefit of the doubt, instead of relentlessly piling on.
I daresay, a scant few months into this new administration, doing so would even be patriotic.