What’s going on in Iran today is as momentous as last November’s US Presidential election—and in some ways the two are comparable, as the groundswell of political interest and activity is bigger than the candidates and political games-playing involved.
Obama knew what he was doing in making “change” a key term in his campaign. In 2008, Americans were ready for change—and, while Obama has a great amount of personal appeal, his nomination and election were largely indicative of the public’s desire to break from the usual political formula.
In several instances, Obama has provided that change—but, disappointingly, he is enough of a political games-player (in the old sense, the one we had hoped we were breaking from) to retain substantial vestiges of the old regime—pandering to the wealthy and corporate elites, sustaining a warlike stance in the Middle East, mixing religion and politics, equivocating in his desire to change the way we treat detainees, copying the secrecy and enlarged executive privileges of previous Presidents, and (while maintaining a show of benign tolerance) keeping an arm’s length away from issues of importance to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people.
News that Mousavi is closely similar to his political rival Ahmadinejad is not far off the increasingly commonplace observation that Obama resembles Bush in many ways. And yet both Mousavi and Obama are measurably more open to modern ideas than their competitors—and if the Iranian masses are not yet ready to wholly embrace secular humanism and sexual equality, are the Americans really much further evolved? One might expect that US citizens should be further along in their love of liberty and democracy than the Iranians … but such is not necessarily the case.
Would a Mousavi presidency do much to move Iran away from theocracy and anti-West posturing? Has anything really been gained by having Obama in the White House?
I would now say yes to both questions—a qualified “yes,” with an understanding that change is incremental and that it is less the task of presidents than of the people.
Obama’s very presence in the White House accomplishes quite a bit of good … even if only symbolically, though I suspect the effect is a bit more than mere symbolism. The public is more vibrantly vocal now than it was during the Bush years. Issues like the national debt, torture, and surveillance are getting more attention now than they did during the previous eight years, and even though he is slow to budge from the status quo, the President seems (sometimes genuinely) to welcome healthy debate and feedback on these issues. And, after almost a decade of near silence, supporters of same-sex marriage and gays in the military are pushing more not only to be heard but also to effect real, bankable changes in the immediate future.
Arguably, the largely youthful uprising in Iran this week is, to some degree, an outcome of Obama’s June 4th paradigm-shifting speech in Cairo—as is the growing number of Israelis who support a two-state solution with the Palestinians. (That speech, plus new technologies of communication.)
And though Mousavi and Obama sometimes shy away from the full extent of change that many in their respective societies call for, they have both expressed a willingness to follow the will of the people—if even as a form of “damage control,” tricks neither Ahmadinejad and Bush have been particularly good at.
The change that we are looking forward to, here in the West and in the Middle East and elsewhere, is not just a change in leaders, but also more importantly a change in the spirit of the people.
Do not doubt, though, that tremendous forces are at work to blunt the force of the people’s will, in Iran and America alike—and do not be fooled into blindly trusting that leaders, charismatic and inspirational leaders, can or will, in the absence of close public scrutiny and vocal debate, choose to effect the sort of changes that the thousands of protestors in Iran—and the throngs who support strong social and political reforms in the USA—so poignantly cry out for.