On a rainy day in 1993, I sat with my parents at the opening ceremonies of the Holocaust Museum and heard President Clinton, who was doing nothing to stop the genocide in Bosnia, suggest that the genocide in Bosnia must be stopped, because never again can we allow genocide to occur. My mother laconically whispered that "he talks about Bosnia as if he is somebody else." I was reminded of her distinction between the president and the rest of us when I read a piece on this magazine's website by my haver Michael Walzer, who made the same distinction but for the opposite end. He wished to exonerate the president. His subject was President Obama's stony reluctance to condemn the Iranian regime's theft of the election and its repression in the streets. "What Obama says must be guided by what he has to do," Walzer wrote, referring to the challenge of the nuclearization of Iran. "The rest of us are much freer." And so "we need to be clear about who we are and what we stand for and why we oppose the religious zealots and tyrants who have ruled Iran for the last decades." But the president need express, or teach, no such clarity. "Heads of state," who can "defend political principles" if they wish, "have other things to do." This was the stirring slogan of Walzer's exemption of the president from moral leadership in the midst of one of the greatest explosions of democratic energy in our time: "For liberals and leftists--opposition and nothing else; for state diplomats--handshakes and negotiations."
March, for that? I admit that the condition of the American left matters less to me than the condition of the Iranian resistance. And Walzer was hardly the only liberal making bleak excuses for Obama's zealous refusal to show any zeal. We shall not be moved, indeed. But Walzer got it exactly backward. If all of us support the dissidents but the president does not, the dissidents have an American problem. If none of us support the dissidents but the president does, the dissidents do not have an American problem. And either way, the president is "meddling." Obama's parsimonious performance in the first weeks of the rebellion in Tehran, the disappearance of his eloquence and his championship of change, was an attempt by the president to impersonate the rest of us, to be just another saddened consumer of tweets and feeds. Hence his refrains about "bearing witness" and "the world is watching." That is uplift for a demonstration, or a vigil. Witnessing and watching are varieties of passivity. The rest of us witness and watch, because we can do little else. (Hitting "send" is not a muscular form of political action.) Obama seems to think that there is some force in the admonition that the world is watching; but history plentifully demonstrates that when the world is watching, all the world does is watch. His worst moment came when he hid behind Martin Luther King, Jr.: "What we can do is bear witness and say to the world that the incredible demonstrations that we've seen is a testimony to--I think what Dr. King called the arc of the moral universe. It's long but it bends towards justice." The president was counseling patience, and it always looks so unwise, so impetuous, to be against patience. But King was not patient with injustice. And when it came to his own campaign, to his own hunger, Obama did not cite King on the long arc of justice. He cited King on the fierce urgency of now.
With their defense of Obama's dilatoriness about the revolt in Tehran, American liberals compromised themselves. They succumbed to the Council on Foreign Relations view of the world. So it is important to be clear that the strong articulation of American principles by the American president when those principles are being bravely upheld by a people in revolt against a dictator--this is not only a statement of emotion, it is also an element of strategy. It emboldens the right side. It allies the United States with peoples against regimes, which is almost always the surest foundation for the American position. (I am not an Iran expert, unlike almost everyone I meet, but I find it hard to imagine that the young men and women suffering the blows of the Basij would not welcome our support, that they are in the streets with angry thoughts of Mossadegh. If these events have shown anything, it is that their enemy and our enemy are the same.) There is nothing more sweepingly in the interest of the United States in the Middle East than the withering away of the theocracy in Iran. Every blow struck against the structure of state power in Iran is a blow struck against Hezbollah and Hamas; and a blow has at last been struck. This is one of those instances in which our planners may have some use for our principles. I understand the urgency of the nuclear issue, of course. I doubt that those centrifuges will be negotiated away; but if there is any hope for diplomacy, it lies in a political transformation in Tehran.
I do not agree that Obama's diffidence about liberation and human rights is owed entirely to a fear of nuclear proliferation. He has another commitment. He is determined to be the un-ugly American. This excites him. He is consecrated to an engagement with the Muslim world, which is not entirely consistent with a consecration to democracy. Even as the brutality of the ayatollahs was increasing, Obama made a point of referring graciously to "the Islamic Republic of Iran," as if it would be a slander against Islam or Iran to refer to the regime in a less legitimating manner. (The commentators are declaring a "crisis of legitimacy" in Iran, but there can be no crisis of legitimacy where there is no legitimacy.) Why does Obama care so much for Khamenei's good opinion? Khamenei will blame the West whatever the West does, because he believes that the West is forever to blame. Khamenei responded to Obama's rapture in Cairo with this. And soon, if he is to act according to his plan, Obama will have to sit down with Ahmadinejad. Perhaps he will shake his hand. Perhaps he will he wear a green tie. There are many ways for an American to be ugly or un-ugly. The hearts of millions are about to be broken. They will look to the president of the United States. Will his mincing cease? Will the realist get real? In recent days Obama has begun--not under pressure, of course--to "condemn" and to "deplore." The oppressed people of Iran may now endure what other oppressed peoples have endured: the learning curve of an American president. It is the insult that history adds to their injury.
Leon Wieseltier is The New Republic's literary editor.
By Leon Wieseltier