Friday, June 19, 2009

Toughness

As I mentioned, I'm not going to be able to say much about Iran -- what's going on there now involves historical and political dynamics about which I understand just enough to grasp that I actually understand nothing. I simply don't have any expertise in this area of the world. So I've been following avidly but keeping mum.

The unfolding "debate" about the US response is a different issue -- although here, too, I don't know enough about Iran to presume to offer definitive advice to the Obama administration on how they should be reacting to events there, I feel awfully suspicious of all this posturing going on about how Obama isn't being "tough" enough. First of all, I've now seen lots of convincing arguments (from folks that know much more than I do about Iran) that the approach Obama is taking is smart and sound, given that he has to exercise caution about conflating the protestors' cause with "American interference." Second of all, as hilzoy keeps on helpfully reminding us all, even a very basic understanding of the unsavory history of US intervention in Iran ought to preclude some of this absurd fantasy about how the US taking a forceful rhetorical stance might save the day (ahem, John McCain: "We do what we have done throughout the Cold War and afterwards, we speak up for the people of Tehran and Iran and all the cities all over that country who have been deprived of one of their fundamental rights." Right, our excellent Cold War track record in Iran.) And third, to me all this bluster does not sound like it actually has anything to do with Iran per se: it's just the same old schoolyard stuff we've been hearing thrown at Democrats for decades about not being "tough" enough (on crime, welfare queens, defense, terror...), about being girly-men, about speaking French, etc. It's just wrapped around the headline of the week, which happens to be Iran.

Now, I'm not entirely unsympathetic to some of the genuine criticism coming Obama's way, like this piece from Roger Cohen, arguing that Obama needs to be doing/saying more. And I get that lots and lots of Democrats are upset with Obama's caution, too. But, especially because of point #3, I really don't see why the NYT has just chosen to post as the lead article on the website (as of around 10pm tonight) a piece titled "Obama Reluctant to Toughen Stance on Iran." The piece itself, by Mark Lander, is okay, I guess, and informative in a general way about various responses (from Congress, European leaders, etc.) to the situation in Iran. But although it refers to "criticism that Mr. Obama’s refusal to speak out more had broken faith with democracy advocates in Tehran" and "pressure on the White House" from "Congressional Republicans and conservative foreign-policy experts," and although it gives lots of examples of the "tougher line" other people besides Obama are taking, it doesn't actually name one person explicitly criticizing Obama himself for not being "tough" enough, nor give any articulation of what the foreign-policy basis for such criticism would be. (It does, on the other hand quote a number of people, including Henry Kissinger and Karim Sadgadpour, "an Iranian expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace," explicitly supporting the administration's approach and explaining why in policy-outcome terms, not John McCain-speak.) The people Lander does quote may be reacting differently from Obama, but they're not criticizing him. (Yes, I understand that plenty of people are. But aside from the references to "criticism" and one quote from an Iran expert that seems to be connected to the uncontroversial idea that Obama may have to shift his stance in the event that a Tiananmen-style crackdown occurs, they're not present in this particular article.) There was also apparently no one from the administration willing to go on the record here, so it's all "officials said," etc.

Anyway, regardless, my real beef here is with the title, which to my ear seems to use this super-charged language of "toughness" to imply that Obama is somehow simply wimping out about Iran when the right thing to do is obviously to be "tough." In American political discourse, the antonym for tough is wimpy, and someone who is "reluctant" to take a "tough stance" is cowering. I'm not saying Lander's piece or the NYT is delibrately arguing this -- just that this seems like a really poor choice of language for the header. And that this is the case regardless of the valid arguments that might be made for/against the approach Obama has been taking so far.

Now I will be mum again.


**Update: The headline has now become "Obama Resists Calls for a Tougher Stance on Iran." This is slightly less objectionable, I suppose -- it implies a debate over the correct policy rather than a wimpy "reluctance" to do the manly thing. But I still think that there's no need to characterize the use of more bellicose language as a "tougher stance." Also, this version of the header reflects the actual content of the article even less than the previous version did -- again, there are no actual people quoted here "calling" on Obama to do anything differently, and explaining why, just general references to "criticism" of him.

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