President Obama’s comments to CNBC on Tuesday about election protests in Iran were startlingly unsentimental.
“It’s important to understand that although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, that the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised,” he said during an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood at the White House (he also did an interview Tuesday with the Wall Street Journal, transcript here, and Bloomberg, article here — all were to preview financial regulation rules being rolled out Wednesday).
“Either way, we were going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States, that has caused some problems in the neighborhood and is pursuing nuclear weapons.”
I wrote in Wednesday’s paper about the debate the president’s response has ignited among those who think he should be speaking up much more loudly on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Iranians protesting election results, and those who say U.S. interference would be counterproductive given Iran’s internal political and cultural realities.
But the White House was put on the defensive somewhat yesterday about Obama’s commitment to democracy.
“Are you at all concerned that the measured response of the United States so far to the Iranian elections could harm America or the president’s image among democracy advocates not only in Iran but around the world?” one reporter asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs during the regular daily briefing (Monday, by the way, was the first time in over a week that Gibbs briefed reporters at the White House without bringing another administration official to speak and answer questions at the top of the session).
“No, I think this administration’s commitment to democracy has been demonstrated in the commitment in resources that we’ve put forward,” Gibbs said. “But at the same time, I think it’s important that I reemphasize what the president said about sovereignty, but more importantly, that I emphasize that this is a debate inside of Iran for Iranians.”
Gibbs statement about “resources … put forward” was so vague that it could have meant anything, or nothing. So I followed up with him. He brought another White House official into the conversation (over e-mail), who did not want to be named but provided figures showing that the Obama administration has increased its financial commitment to democracy promotion.
The current year’s budget, which was drawn up in part by the Bush administration before they left office, is spending $2.580 billion on a program run through the State Department called “Governing Justly and Democratically” (click here to read a full description of the program on the State Department’s website).
The Obama administration has slated $2.814 billion in next year’s budget to go into GJD. The White House official providing the numbers said this is a bigger increase, percentage-wise, than the overall increase in spending for foreign assistance.
The GSD website is interesting, because some of the rhetoric, which is from 2007, runs counter to the way that the Obama adminitration has conducted its foreign policy.
“Good governance and democracy promotion are central to U.S. national security and the global war on terror,” the page says. “Strategies and programs that support the Strategic Goal of ‘Governing Justly and Democratically’ take into account the challenges and opportunities presented by each country category as outlined in Appendix I. In restrictive countries, the emphasis will be on building political parties and supporting civil society to challenge closed regimes, sustaining the work of human rights defenders, and supporting independent media.”
Although Obama has said the Iranian government should not use violence against protesters, it could be argued that he is not really challenging Tehran as much as standing up for “universal principles,” as he himself has said.
Also on the topic of Iran, one of the more knowledgeable journalists about the Islamic Republic is the Washington Times’ foreign editor Barbara Slavin, who has written a book on the subject, called “Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.” Make sure you check out Barbara’s piece in Tuesday’s paper about the implications of what is happening in Iran and possible outcomes.
— Jon Ward, White House reporter, The Washington Times