Obama, Iran and Tienanmen

With whom does America stand?

Jeff Jacoby

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Is Barack Obama channeling George H. W. Bush?

Twenty years ago this month, the first President Bush refused to condemn China's communist rulers when they unleashed a violent assault on pro-democracy demonstrators in the streets of Beijing.
The Obama White House seems deliberately to be taking a page from the elder Bush's 1989 playbook.

For weeks Bush had refrained from encouraging the student-led reform movement that had blossomed around the country. "Clearly we support democracy," he said, but it wouldn't be appropriate for an American president to endorse the protesters' pleas for more freedom. "Exactly what their course of action should be," he demurred, "is for them to determine."

Even after the massacre in Tienanmen Square, Bush - unwavering in his commitment to engagement with Beijing - would say nothing that might offend the Chinese government. "Not the time for an emotional response," he told reporters. He even spoke respectfully of the Chinese troops. "The army did show restraint.... They showed restraint for a long time."

In reacting to last week's rigged Iranian election and the protests that erupted after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the runaway victor, the Obama White House seems deliberately to be taking a page from the elder Bush's 1989 playbook.

"The administration has remained as quiet as possible," the Washington Post reported on Monday, even as images streaming out of Iran showed the mullahs' basiji thugs beating and bloodying unarmed protesters. Vice President Joseph Biden told Meet the Press on Sunday that, while there were "doubts" about the election's fairness, the administration was "going to withhold comment" until a more thorough analysis could take place. But even if he election results were fraudulent, engagement with Iran's theocratic regime would go forward. "The decision has been made to talk," Biden said.

Not until Monday evening did Obama himself finally address the crisis in Iran; and when he did it was Bush-on-Tienanmen all over again - halting, mealy-mouthed, passive. "I want to start off by being very clear that it is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran's leaders will be," he said, as if that isn't precisely what the mullahs rigged the election to prevent. "I am deeply troubled by the violence that I've been seeing on television," he continued, without a word of censure for the despotic government committing that violence, let alone a demand that it stop.

Like Bush Sr. in 1989, Obama made it clear that he was not going to lift a finger for the courageous throngs in the streets - and that he was keen to engage the junta, no matter how vicious or contemptible its behavior. "We will continue," he said, "to pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries." Yesterday he repeated that, while he does not like to see "violence directed at peaceful protesters," it would not be "productive" for the president of the United States "to be seen as meddling" in Iranian affairs.

But neutrality is not an option. By not unequivocally supporting the Iranian protesters, Obama is aiding their oppressors. Reporting from Tehran the other night, CNN's Samson Desta noted that Iranian students have repeatedly approached him to say that "they want to appeal to President Obama. They say, 'Is he going to accept this result? Because if he does, then we are doomed.'"

Should it really be so difficult for a president who campaigned for office on the themes of hope and change to raise his voice on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of brave Iranians who are risking their lives to bring hope and
"Engagement" with the foul Ahmadinejad and the turbaned dictators he answers to has always been a chimera.
change to their country? Where is the president who proclaimed on his first day in office that those "who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent... are on the wrong side of history?" If he could say it at his inauguration, why can't he say it now?

"Engagement" with the foul Ahmadinejad and the turbaned dictators he answers to has always been a chimera; if that wasn't clear before last week's brazenly rigged election results, surely it is clear now. Iran's ruling clerics, headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, didn't just endorse the Ahmadinejad approach - the pursuit of nuclear weapons, the vile anti-Semitism, the demonization of America, the partnership with terrorists, the trampling of human rights. They unreservedly embraced it. Ahmadinejad's fraudulent re-election was hailed by Khamenei as "a divine blessing" and "a glittering event." With such a regime, no compromise is possible. Neither is impartiality.

Like the Bush White House in 1989, the Obama White House must make its choice. Will America stand with the mullahs and their goons, or with the long-suffering people of Iran?

This article was originally published in The Boston Globe on June 17, 2009.