‘Engagement Was Pressure’

Spencer Ackerman runs down some of the key points of Roger Cohen’s must-read piece on Obama’s Iran strategy. I respond to a couple.

Engagement is foundational for Obama, as is divestiture of what Cohen calls “emotion” from foreign policy, as part of the meta-point of combating what his campaign advisers-turned-White House advisers (McDonough and Rhodes in particular) call the “politics of fear.” You knew this already. Critics will call this engagement for its own sake or engagement for the theological belief that it will work. Neither is true, since, on the former point, Obama thinks that engagement is an untested tactic that might unlock a less bellicose Iran and, on the latter, Obama has already said Iran has till about the end of the year or a little after to respond to the overture and Dennis Ross is thinking through what Plan B ought to contain. But it’s accurate to say that there’s a lot of emotional investment from the administration in Plan A working, and that if it doesn’t, a dispirited administration will cobble together a more punitive policy package.

As Spencer notes, Cohen’s article does good work dismantling the conservative strawman arguments about “engagement fetishists,” (to use the preferred term of a conservative friend of mine) but I think it’s worth stressing what deputy national-security adviser Tom Donilon told Cohen, “Engagement was pressure.”

As I wrote in response to Michael Gerson last week, while we shouldn’t pretend that the Iranian elections were a referendum on Obama, I think it’s clear that Obama’s outreach did play a part in Iran’s internal politics, empowering reformers seeking an end to Iran’s international isolation and undercutting hardline propaganda about the Great Satan. This represented an enormous threat to Iran’s conservatives, who responded accordingly.


While the most optimal outcome of engagement would obviously be a positive change in the U.S.-Iran relationship, Obama has always been clear that this may not work. In that case, the engagement strategy generates greater international resolve to confront Iran by making clear to the international community who the recalcitrant party is. While this is less optimal, I don’t think it’s any less intentional.


It’s too pat to say definitively that the Iranian opposition doesn’t want U.S. support. I’ve written this a lot since June 12, because the evidence hasn’t been there that the opposition wants American aid. Cohen, who’s sympathetic to the argument that the U.S. ought to stay out of Iranian politics, reports some anecdotes of Iranian protesters asking him, “Where’s Obama?” He doesn’t spend much time fleshing that out, but it makes me think that I should revise and extend. At least some protesters seem to want moral support — there is no evidence that they want material support — and the Obama administration doesn’t want to be locked in to not negotiating with an Iranian government assembled by a thief.

While the difference between material and moral support is important, so is the difference between moral support and sanctimonious grandstanding of the sort that we saw coming from McCain and the gang in the election’s aftermath, which in any case was intended mainly for domestic political consumption.

Without diminishing their sentiments, I’m not surprised at all that Cohen was able to find protesters who wanted Obama to support the protests more explicitly — if that is in fact what these protesters meant by “Where’s Obama?” I was torn over this question as well, wanting to see Obama engage more fully behind the protesters, but questioning the practical effects on the ground. The general consensus among Iranian pro-reform activists and analysts, however, at least as far as I can tell, is that Obama’s treatment of the protests — stressing human rights but not taking a side in the electoral dispute — and the manner in which he carefully raised the temperature over the course of the demonstrations, was well done. Certainly no one has ever offered a remotely plausible scenario in which earlier, more forceful condemnation of the regime by Obama could have led to a better outcome.