How could the president talk to Iran without causing an international incident? John Avlon on five high-tech strategies. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
As Iranian mullahs try to turn the streets of Tehran into Tiananmen Square, President Obama faces a pivotal test. After rejecting the Bush administration’s aggressive democracy-promotion agenda, Obama has the chance to prove that YouTube diplomacy—a high-tech, soft-power outreach beyond government borders—can be a more effective ally for Muslim reformers in a time of crisis.
Obama’s approach is traditionally conservative: modest in its aims, skeptical of the likely alternatives, heeding the old warning that “you cannot impose democracy by point of bayonet.”
From his inauguration address, to his March video message to the people of Iran, to his 6,000-word speech in Cairo, there has been consistent outreach from the Obama administration to Muslim moderates and young people on the Arab street. While unsatisfying to many conservatives, this approach has its advocates. Leading Iranian dissidents from the once-imprisoned Akbar Ganji to the Nobel Prize-winning Shirin Ebadi have often cautioned that heavy-handed U.S. intervention into Iranian affairs would be counterproductive to the cause of reform. “Iranian reformists believe that democracy can't be imported,” wrote Ebadi. “It must be indigenous."
Ironically, what’s been missing so far from Obama’s statements on Iran is his signature focus on hope and change, tailored to inspire and sustain the pro-democracy protesters. Here are five ways the Obama administration can firmly support political reform in Islam consistent with its YouTube diplomacy—confronting the tyranny, corruption, the absence of civil rights and civil society that comes with Islamic supremacist states.
1. Fully fund Radio Farda. Radio Farda is the equivalent of Radio Free Europe for the Persian world. Its funding has seesawed in recent years, at the same time that America’s public diplomacy efforts became preoccupied with the exporting the pop stylings of Britney Spears rather than serious ideas. The intellectual tradition of Iran and the Arab street is starved for nontheological content, but it can recoil from crass Western commercialism. The recent expansion of Radio Farda into text messaging has increased its relevance to Iranian youth and helped propel the social networks and connections to the Western world that are publicizing and enabling the protests. Grants should also be given to develop better firewall blockers in the cause of free speech. The Obama administration might have abandoned the term “war on terror,” but we are indelibly engaged in a war of ideas against radical Islam.
2. Publicize Political Prisoners. During the Cold War, the Reagan administration stood with dissidents even as it pursued “trust but verify” diplomacy with the Soviet state. It was key to dismantling the myth of moral equivalence. Advocating for the many jailed or threatened human-rights activist and political prisoners in Iran is an important step in the same direction. This should not just be limited to victims of the current crackdown. People like the women’s rights activist Delaram Ali—who was sentenced to three years in prison and flogging for participating in a demonstration for equalizing women’s rights in Iran—should be widely known in the West. The crackdowns on the members of the Baha’i faith and other religious and ethnic minorities should also be highlighted. And stopping the practice of stoning as a punishment against women for adultery (see the movie The Stoning of Soroya M) should become a cause on college campuses and all civil societies.
3. Advance Women’s Education. One of the fundamental structural weaknesses of the Islamist world view is the gender apartheid it imposes on more than half its population. During the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton proposed funding women’s universities around the Muslim world. The Obama administration should embrace this proposal and even the work of critics like Liz Cheney on this front. It remains a near-perfect policy for building broad coalitions of support, a long-term goal that can encourage change from within. As Martin Amis asked in his excellent essay “The Age of Horrorism,” what would be the response? “Can we imagine seeing men on the march in defense of their right to beat their wives?...Would that win hearts and minds?...Women, by definition, are not a minority.”
4. New Sanctions. The combination of low oil prices and the destabilization of economic sanctions has proved effective in unmooring dictators from their ironclad grip on power in the past. If the mullahs are successful in their efforts to violently suppress these protests, the U.S. should embrace new sanctions, including legislation proposed by centrist Democratic Senator Evan Bayh that would require the president to impose penalties on international firms that invest at least $20 million in Iran's ability to develop its oil-refining capabilities. This would not punish the people of Iran as much as the companies that try to profit from propping up its dictatorship.
5. Benchmarks for Benefits. Half of the top 16 U.S. foreign-aid recipients are Muslim countries. The 1974 Jackson-Vanick Amendment conditioned “most favored nation” trading status on a nation’s compliance with emigration rights, with an eye toward oppression in the Soviet satellite states. A new incarnation of this policy focused on meeting human-rights benchmarks would create a financial incentive for modernization in the Muslim World. As a carrot to this stick, the Obama administration should expand funding for the Bush-era Middle East Partnership Initiative that supports local NGOs in their effort to empower women economically.
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President Obama’s restraint during this crisis has drawn fire from conservative critics like John McCain who remember America’s shamefully muted response to the anti-Soviet Hungarian revolution of 1956. The irony is that Obama’s approach is actually the more traditionally conservative: modest in its aims, skeptical of the likely alternatives, heeding the old warning that “you cannot impose democracy by point of bayonet” and replaying the first Bush administration’s steadfastly supportive but anti-triumphalist tone during the Velvet Revolutions of 1989.
But 20 years later, there is still a need to feed the pro-democracy protesters with hope in their moment of change, buoyed by an overarching vision of freedom. The currency of the word "freedom" may have been devalued by overuse in Bush administration foreign policy, but the concept is eternal—fundamental to the identity of the United States and the aspirations of individualists everywhere.
President Obama’s YouTube diplomacy is ideally suited to offering young moderate Muslims a vision of the wider world of freedom and possibility that exists beyond their theology, ideology and barricaded borders. Marrying the hallmark Obama phrases of “hope” and “change” to the bedrock concept of increasing freedom would not only bridge the Bush and Obama administration policies, it would help escalate this pivotal moment in constructive ways, leading to the lasting freedom that comes when people rise up against dictatorships and claim democracy in their own name.
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.