The Administration of George W. Bush was close to an unmitigated disaster for the image of the United States abroad. His ill-informed, often offensive, and counter-productive public statements and policy preferences set back American national security dramatically. Trying to undo some of the damage of the Bush years is the reason that President Obama has be so willing to acknowledge past errors and call for a fresh start.
While this assessment remains controversial here, it is widely accepted abroad. But if it is the case that the United States ought to apologize for past misconduct – and indeed, it is a demonstration of strength, not weakness to acknowledge past mistakes – isn’t it also incumbent on other nations to do the same? Apology and open-minded self-criticism ought to be a two-way street.
In this context, what expectations should we have about the forthcoming Iranian elections?
The contest between Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Mir Hussein Moussavi has been encouragingly open and lively. It may not quite be politics as we know, but it is undeniably a democratic process. Economic debates are at the core of the differences between the two candidates. But just as many Americans argued passionately that the election of John McCain would have served as a public endorsement for Bush-style policies, including on foreign affairs, the Iranian people need to understand that in the United States at least we would see the reelection of Ahmedinejad as a statement of support for his foreign policy posture – his oblique threats against Israel, his gleeful rejection of constraints on the Iranian nuclear program, and his constant America-baiting.
If the election of Obama was an important step in reclaiming American role in the world, then the rejection of Ahmedinejad has to be considered an important indicator of the preferences and worldview of the Iranian people.
Unfortunately, the punditry in the United States will likely break down along predictable partisan lines. Liberals will argue that an Ahmedinejad victory was a function of his populist economic policies, not a rejection of Obama’s efforts to reach out to the Iranian public. If, on the other hand, he is defeated, many will claim that Obama’s public diplomacy efforts were decisive. Conservatives will argue the reverse – namely that an Ahmedinejad victory marks the failure of Obama, but that his defeat was a consequence of economic factors and no reflection on Obama’s policies.
The Iranian election, as a consequence, are a wonderful opportunity to hold all to a higher standard – the Iranian public and American pundits alike. It is a fascinating moment, and it deserves clear-headed and fair-minded assessment.
Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the American Security Project. This essay previously appeared as ASP’s Flash Pointblog as “Assessing the Implications of the Iranian Elections.”