The president may be new and different, but the problem Barack Obama has sought to deal with this week is a familiar one. So, too, is his effort to maintain a balanced response.
So while he used strong words Tuesday to “strongly condemn” the treatment of Iran’s pro-democracy demonstrators, Obama also resisted direct condemnation of its recent presidential election and stressed that he respects Iranian sovereignty.
Because there were no international inspectors, Obama told a White House news conference, “We can’t say definitively exactly what happened.” But he noted that a sizeable number of Iranians “consider this election illegitimate.”
As for his efforts to persuade Iran to curb efforts to develop a nuclear capacity, he said it remains up to its governmental leaders to decide whether to take a path in which “they are part of a larger community in which they have responsibilities.”
Presidents from Eisenhower to Bush faced the kind of foreign policy dilemma that Obama has encountered in weighing an appropriate response to both the Iranian election and the subsequent street protests over the announced outcome.
Like Obama, they have tended to respond with caution, lest they inflame an incendiary situation and create more problems for the U.S. And, like Obama, that approach has sometimes subjected them to domestic criticism, especially from the opposition party.
That has been true with Democrats like John F. Kennedy, in his response to the erection of the Berlin Wall; or Republicans like the first President Bush, in his reaction to China’s Tiananmen Square massacre and to the tearing down of that wall in Berlin.
Indeed, when the Russians erected the infamous wall in August 1961, the Kennedy White House’s reaction was so muted it took a week for it to say anything. Kennedy himself never commented publicly.
The principal reason: fear of upsetting the delicate balance in central Europe and precipitating an anti-Soviet uprising. Western officials also shared Soviet concern about the number of East Germans fleeing to the West, a flow that the wall cut off.
A generation later, when the wall was torn down, President George Bush was similarly cautious, not wanting to inflame the unstable situation that had developed as massive public uprisings pushed the once docile Eastern European satellites toward independence from the Soviet bloc.
His reticence prompted considerable domestic criticism, as did his speech two years later in the Ukraine that backed Soviet efforts to maintain sovereignty there. The extent to which the transition ultimately proved surprisingly peaceful shows the wisdom of Bush’s approach.
The event that perhaps bears the closest resemblance to Iran was the 1989 Chinese crackdown on democratic dissidents in Tiananmen Square.
Bush initially reacted by cutting off U.S. military sales and visits to China but later dispatched National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft to tell the Chinese that the U.S. remained committed to the developing relationship.
Pictures of Scowcroft toasting Chinese leaders drew sharp criticism from liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, echoed in the 1992 campaign by Democratic nominee Bill Clinton. But when Clinton succeeded Bush, he continued his predecessor’s policy of engagement with China.
In dealing with Iran, Obama faces an even more complicated dilemma than the one Bush and Clinton dealt with in China because of the potential threat from Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
Like his congressional critics, Obama said Tuesday, “We want justice to prevail.”
But he pointedly noted that “only I am the president of the United States, and I’ve got responsibilities in making certain that we are continually advancing our national security interests and that we are not used as a tool to be exploited by other countries.”
The way some of his prior comments have been twisted, he added, shows “the narrative the Iranian government would love to play into.”
The situation is especially tricky, given the U.S. history of meddling in Iran, including its role in a 1953 coup that overthrew an Iranian government that nationalized its British-owned oil industry.
So it seemed only reasonable that Obama seemed rightfully determined to resist the efforts of reporters to force him to say more than he wanted, including what consequences Iran might face.
“We don’t know yet how this thing is going to play out,” he said. “Everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I’m not.”