The Obama Effect?
On June 4, President Barack Obama declared, "I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world." Awed by Obama's rhetoric, many commentators -- blogger Juan Cole and MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann, for example -- suggested that an "Obama Effect" could usher in a new era of hope and change in the Middle East, and a pro-American outcome in Lebanese elections earlier this month seemed to cooperate with the theory.
After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection in Iran, we can now say with confidence: There is an Obama Effect, but it has less to do with reform and more to do with American arrogance and the triumph of advocacy over analysis.
Look carefully at how things unfolded in Tehran. Outreach to the Islamic Republic is Obama's signature foreign policy issue. A week into his presidency, Obama extended an olive branch to Tehran, asking the regime to unclench its fist. Two months later, Obama broadcast a message to Iran, for the first time recognizing the ayatollahs as the legitimate representatives of the Iranian people. Last month, Obama acknowledged the Islamic Republic's right to enrich uranium and, in Cairo, the he acknowledged CIA involvement in the overthrow of an Iranian government more than a half-century ago.
Rhetoric, concession and apology, however, are not enough to alter reality. On Friday, millions of Iranians cast votes in hotly contested presidential elections, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust-denying president who defies nuclear safeguards and mocks U.S. weakness, won a second term.
Many journalists and diplomats believe the election was fixed. Perhaps it was. But this is Iran, where the word of the Supreme Leader trumps everything.
Obama, embracing what might be called born again diplomacy, believes he can reset all bilateral relations with the press of a button. But the failure of engagement with rogue regimes has less to do with his predecessors and more to do with the nature of the enemy. If the Islamic Republic blatantly throws an election, why should the White House believe they will honor diplomatic commitments?
Obama's partisans misunderstand Lebanon as well. The victorious coalition coalesced in anger to the Syria-sponsored assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister. George W. Bush responded by isolating Damascus diplomatically to force Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. Rather than maintain pressure on the Syrian regime, Obama has reversed Syria's isolation. Recognizing that it will not be held to account, Syria will simply accelerate its provision of weaponry to Hezbollah so it can achieve through guns what it has not at the ballot box.
Both Iranians and Lebanese deserve praise for engaging enthusiastically in the democratic process. Both peoples are courageous in the face of oppression. But Obama has no magic wand. The more his policy rests on rhetoric alone and ignores reality, the greater the ultimate risk of conflict.