The Final Debate: Fact-Checking on Iran

Okay, only two more weeks in which I could potentially write about the election.  Trust me, I’m excited, too.

Anyhoo . . .

L at the Book Archaeologist asked:

I’d be interested to hear your take on the discussion re: Obama’s reaction to Green Revolution as major talking point in the debate last night. Saw one article (from ThinkProgress) saying Obama’s response was good & hailed by Iranian activists but another (from the Guardian) criticizing his response & agreeing with Mittens’ views. ANYWAY I AM CURIOUS RE YOUR VIEWS.

I’m not even sure why Romney is making this an issue, because in the context of everything else Romney tries to lambast the President for (Benghazi, Iran being “four years closer to nuclear weapons” or whatever, and his occasionally lukewarm attitude towards Israel) this seems like kind of a weird criticism? Like, what the fuck else was the President going to do? Although I suppose the logical answer, from Romney’s point of view, is invade Iran and kill them (even though we can’t kill our way out if things, except that’s how Romney will deal with the terrorists from Benghazi).

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I think there are a couple of things to unpack about both articles’ criticisms of the candidates.  The first level is the rather silly misunderstandings, one that is levied against Governor Romney much more than against the President – as the ThinkProgress piece points out, Syria is nowhere close to being Iran’s “route to the sea” – Iran doesn’t directly border on Syria and isn’t landlocked itself.  Similarly, as you point out, that Iran is now “four years’ closer to nuclear weapons” isn’t really an accusation against the President; at best, it should be a criticism of the whole world, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (and as Stephen Colbert has pointed out, it’s also technically true of everyone, not just Iran).

The second level, though, stems from the essential nature of how we should ‘judge’ presidential debates – when we ask which candidate behaved (or says they would have behaved) in the people’s best interest, of which ‘people’ are we speaking?  It’s understandable to want to believe that the best interests of ‘the people’ around the world are always the same, and that serving democratic revolutions overseas helps us here at home, as well, but unfortunately that’s not really the case.  It may prove to be the case in the long-run, but especially in the short-run (and presidents are only judged for eight years at most), there are solid arguments to be made that tyrannies oversea actually serve us as Americans better, so long as they are stable and headed by a cooperative dictator (indeed, this theory fueled much of American action in South America for much of the twentieth century).

I think actually the two articles agree on the evidence, but are disagreeing in their conclusions – ThinkProgress is lauding the President for taking a stance supporting those inciting the Green Revolution, as supporting the democratic cause, whereas the Guardian argues that his statements were overly tempered, because of mixed priorities in his approach to Iran (particularly the hope of entering into negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program).  Both articles chide Governor Romney for saying that the President made no response, and technically, the statements of the two articles aren’t mutually exclusive.  Actually, taken together, they paint a largely accurate picture of what really happened – the President and American leaders in general made vague but supportive statements regarding the Green Revolution, saying that they supported the cause of democracy worldwide, criticizing President Ahmadinejad for attacking his own citizens, but stressing that America had no interest in intervening in the internal debates of a sovereign nation.

I think the larger issue at the heart of your question, and the one that divides these two articles, is the question of what measure we should be using to judge the President’s response.  Should it matter if his actions were lauded by the Green Revolution activists themselves?  Is it appropriate for him to prioritize negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, an issue of importance for Americans and the international community more generally, but of less importance than fair elections to the people of Iran?  I can only speak for myself, but personally, I think that as long as we’re going to have nations and a nationalist election system, national leaders should be expected to prioritize the issues of their own people above those of the rest of the world.  President Obama is elected by the American people, our tax dollars pay his salary, so he works for us first, and the rest of the world second.  I recognize that this is a fairly heartless position, but I’m also not terribly married to the idea of nationalism, and consider it a necessary if unfortunately conclusion for the system we have.

Probably not surprisingly to anyone who reads this, I also agree with you that Governor Romney’s criticisms of the President were just directionless, as I don’t believe there weren’t a lot of other options that he could have pursued at the time.  I suppose we could have invaded Iran for the sake of the Green Revolution, but I can’t see how that would have been a better option – it wouldn’t have helped the American people, as it would have worsened our debt, weakened our position in the region and endangered more American lives, but I also can’t believe it really would have helped the Iranian people, as it probably would have at least delayed the cause of free and open elections.  Actually, that’s my issue with Presidential debates in general – since in all but one case, only one of the two people on stage has ever done the job of President, I think it’s highly suspect to have one person answering for their actual actions, and the other speculating about what he would have done in the same circumstance.  That might be a fun thought experiment, but it’s nowhere close to being a fair debate.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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