Sympathy As Policy

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Writing for the New Yorker, George Packer observes that "[a]cknowledging the compelling voices of the desperate young Iranians who, after all, only want their votes counted, would not deep-six the possibility of American-Iranian talks."

It's an exquisite balancing act. On the one hand, there'd be penalties to pay if it appeared as if the United States were meddling in Iran's affairs. That would, after all, violate the precepts of Obama's vow of political non-interference, a centerpiece of his speech to Muslims in Cairo.


But administration officials who counsel the president to play it down the middle on the assumption that the current regime will be the future regime and the U.S. will be a stronger position to negotiate if it doesn't engage the opposition -- that might have it backwards.

The U.S. might actually have more leverage with the current regime if the educated middle class in urban centers, and particularly, younger Iranians, see the U.S as being on their side. Clearly, the government of Iran realizes it does not have the power and authority to govern without this group being somewhat pacified. 

We don't exactly know whether the opposition wants this, though -- we can't really interpret much from the handful of Iranians who gleefully use American-made twitter technology.

Even if the revolt/revolution/opposition is quashed and Ahmadinejad retains his position, some immodest talk by President Obama might strengthen the image of the United States in the eyes of young people all over the Muslim world and give these people more leverage with their own anti-Democratic regimes.

George W. Bush believed this with all his heart, but he lacked the credibility to give voice to these universal values, and a specific opportunity knocked.

The U.S. needs to find ways to build on Obama's speech. Speaking up -- as Obama did last night -- rather than staying neutral, is an expression of the principle of soft power -- winning the hearts and minds of the people of the world, rather than appeasing the powerful.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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