As Tehran Roils, Obama Refuses to Pander

Rudy Giuliani used to like to tell the story about how, at the height of the panic and chaos of 9/11, he supposedly turned to Bernie Kerik, then his police commissioner, and exclaimed: “Thank God George Bush is our president!”

This was back when memories of the disputed 2000 election were still fresh, so the sentiment that Giuliani, who typically mentioned the anecdote to Republican crowds, was really conveying was more like: “Thank God Al Gore isn’t our president! God help us if a Democrat had tried to lead America on 9/11.”

It was, of course, a thoroughly self-serving story—an expedient way for Giuliani to forge a connection with the Democrat-hating conservative Republicans he’d need to win over for a 2008 presidential bid. But, at a certain level, he was onto something: It can sometimes take a crisis to illuminate the real nature of the choice voters faced in the previous election.

That is certainly the case right now. Few Americans went to the polls last November with Iran on their minds at all, and yet it was one of the campaign issues on which the differences between Barack Obama and John McCain were the most clear. Now, as the Iranian government attempts to bloody its own people into submission while American politicians argue over the proper response, the wisdom (perhaps inadvertent) of the voters’ decision to entrust foreign policy to Obama has become clear.

Since hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets in protest of a stolen election last week, McCain has loudly and persistently called on Obama not to mince words in denouncing Iran’s rulers and to take every conceivable step short of an actual military campaign to buttress the protesters. Obama has resisted, at least as much as domestic politics will allow, making clear his concerns about the legitimacy of the election and the violence of the government while keeping the rhetorical heat and volume to a minimum.

This dispute actually reveals something fundamental about the two men and their understanding of history.

Appearing on Face the Nation on Sunday, McCain referred to himself as a student of history and invoked both the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of the Solidarity movement as proof that the United States can play a critical role in supporting democratic uprisings around the world.

“When the workers of Gdansk in Poland were fighting for their freedom, [some American leaders said] ‘We shouldn't interfere.’ We did give them moral support. After the Berlin Wall came down, guess what? They said, ‘You were the beacon of hope,’” McCain said.

There is much emotional appeal in McCain’s view. Over and over on Sunday, he called America “a beacon of freedom and hope,” which is certainly how we like to see ourselves. So when we see images of the thuggish men of the Basij militia mercilessly beating (and shooting) peaceful dissenters in Tehran, of course we should speak out and tell the world whose side we’re on. We’re Americans! That’s what we do!

Unfortunately, McCain’s reading of history is incomplete. Not once on Sunday did he mention the fact that the United States, “beacon of freedom and hope,” engineered the 1953 coup that toppled Iran’s democratically elected government and then spent the next quarter-century propping up the despotic Shah—whose autocratic rule gave rise to the revolutionary forces that rose up in 1979 and turned Iran into the Islamic theocracy that it now is.

This aspect of history, generally ignored in the United States but understood intimately by every Iranian, undermines the lure of McCain’s argument. To Iranians and to the Muslim world in general, the 1953 coup is not some long-forgotten affair. It inspired the revolutionaries in 1979—“You have nothing to complain about. The United States took our whole country hostage in 1953,” an American hostage in Tehran was once told by his captor—and Mohammed Mosaddegh, the charismatic prime minister overthrown in ’53, remains as revered by Iranians as, say, John F. Kennedy is by Americans.

But McCain’s concept of U.S.-Iranian history seems to start in ’79, with the revolution and the ensuing American hostage ordeal. This allows for a simple, if highly misleading, narrative: Backward, tyrannical cabal violently seizes power and spends the next three decades oppressing its people and threatening the world—until the U.S. rides to the rescue to liberate the masses.

By contrast, the significance of ’53 within Iran is central to Obama’s reading of the situation. Just a few weeks ago, he acknowledged America’s role in deposing Mosaddegh in his Cairo speech, and since last weekend’s election, he’s been guided by the knowledge that—no matter how well-meaning—the words of an American president can be easily manipulated by Iran’s ruling elite. The emotions connected to ’53 and to the Shah’s long reign are still strong, and American lectures about freedom and democracy invite the obvious question from Iranians: Then why did you take ours away?

McCain’s reverence for the ideals that America purports to stand for is obviously genuine—and admirable, too, considering the sacrifices he was willing to make as a young man. But his devotion to this idealized vision of America blinds him to the very real instances in which we’ve violated the values and principles we claim to hold dearest. Iranians have seen this other side of America firsthand—and Obama knows it.

Thank God, as events plan out in Tehran, Barack Obama is our president.