Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iran and Tiananmen

Obama's cautious approach to the Iranian protests, refusing to "meddle" in the election but voicing concern about violence against demonstrators, makes sense for the reason that he gave at a press conference today: a more assertive stance is "not productive given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations...."

However, looking ahead, Obama would do well to remember another piece of US foreign policy history, namely America's relationship with China in the months and years immediately following the Tiananmen massacre.

In 1989, Bush the elder did not allude to past US intrigues as a reason for a less forceful stance on the events of June 4. In fact, he didn't really do any explaining. He simply at once condemned the crackdown and assured China (privately, via Brent Scowcrowft, at first) that relations, while bumpy, would continue more or less the same.

This double-message is praised in foreign policy circles as the perfect balance of principle and realism, but it led to a zig-zag, confused few years of Sino-US relations. Bill Clinton bluffed that he would tie trade with the P.R.C. to human rights progress, then flipped over to the other extreme and rammed through PNTR.

The effect was to make clear that America only deals with rights when it has less pressing matters on its mind (something Hillary Clinton reiterated recently on her first trip to China as Secretary of State).

Chinese dissidents abroad are brave but their prescriptions often seem out of touch with reality at home. Not so Yang Jianli's advice last year. In an interview with Foreign Policy, he said:
Many people wrongly assume that pressuring the Chinese government on human rights triggers ill will toward Americans on the part of ordinary Chinese citizens. In fact, it is the United States’ constant seesawing that reinforces the popular belief that Americans only act for their own material gain. The lofty statements followed by inaction have led the Chinese people to conclude that some American politicians, scholars, and businesspeople are hypocrites. Their self-imposed censorship when dealing with the Chinese government is disappointing. I have never opposed trading with China, but I cannot support a policy that is so wholly inconsistent.

Obama would do well to heed Yang's words when approaching Iran in the months and years to come. Not "meddling" is fine, whether literally or rhetorically, and there's no reason to cut dialogue entirely with the Iranian government if the current movement fails. But the U.S. should continue to be clear with the Iranian people about what calculations it is making and it should continue to speak clearly about its own ideals and not pipe up or quiet down depending on the winds of war and money. It should also be ready to make some sacrifices for democracy in Tehran.

UPDATE: The more I think about it, the more I think Obama should begin doing more.

1 comment:

jkd said...

I think that for now, the tone is right. So long as the situation is fluid , it's really not going to do anyone any good to have the U.S. doing anything that can appear like taking sides in an internal Iranian political dispute. To be gratingly obvious: how do you suppose public endorsements from nominally-adversarial foreign leaders would have been received by the Gore campaign during Bush v. Gore (to say nothing of the cable nets)?

For now, I pretty much agree with this line:

"“He shifted the frame,” Duvall noted, “from [the question of] ‘were the elections fradulent’ to ‘what’s the responsibility of the Iranian government for peaceful dissent?’"