Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Real Test

As I argued in a post last week, President Obama's involvement in the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips proves nothing about the young president's leadership or talent as a president. Dealing with four primitive Somali pirates is nothing to get excited about. Obama did what anyone in that position would have done: more or less authorize the use of deadly force. The result was what you would expect when the world's most talented, best equipped military goes up against four primitives armed with AKs.

But the imprisonment of Roxana Saberi provides exactly the kind of test Joe Biden mentioned during the campaign. A real opportunity to see what the young president is made of. Iran is a banana republic, but that is where the comparison with Somalia ends. They have international support from Russia, potentially France, and offer the kind of complexities not present in the pirate kidnapping affair. Saberi is an American citizen, and her kangaroo trial was probably more of a set-up than anything. She was picked because she is an American and the Iranians are confident they can back Obama down in ways they never could have with Bush. I have argued this for a long time. Anyone from a masculine culture, anyone from a background less genteel instintively senses weakness in Obama, because he represents the new man of the Left, one who consciously eschews the "male" image of the past. Again, as I argued before, this is not inherently bad. Indeed there are many good things about the new man, but there are great potential dangers and pitfalls when such a man comes into contact with distinctly different cultures where strength is the only way to get respect. Obama is not imposing, and he lacks the depth or experience to not make dangerous blunders like his deferential bow to King Abdullah.

As I understand Middle Eastern and Persian cultures the "bow" indicates subservience, a tacit and conscious admission of inferiority. I would guess that Obama's bow was the impetus to Iran's decision to find a way to test the waters. Seeing the president make such a cultural blunder encouraged the Iranians to find a way to embarrass the president further, deligitimize him in the Islamic world, and continue positioning in the Intenational game of politics and power. Saberi was picked not because she is a journalist, not because she is a woman, not because she is a spy, but because she has American citizenship. The Iranians want to force president Obama into a situation that really tests him. There is almost no way they can lose, as it seems unlikely that Obama will find an easy way out of this situation. We hope that he will surprise them and begin building the respect he desperately needs in the Islamic world, but it seems far less possible. The Iranians timed it perfectly. Worrying that Obama may gain some respect by association with the successful rescue of Captain Phillips they immediately put him on the defensive and deflect attention away from his success with Phillips. They are in essence, trying to bolster the inferior image the president unconsciously created with his bow to King Abdullah. The show of strength and superiority over the Somali pirates is no longer on the radar and Obama gains little, in the Islamic world at least, through it. Instead he now faces a far more complex and dangerous situation, but one he should deal with, as Saberi is an American citizen and deserves our defense and aid.

The ball is in his court and he must play. But this is a far more difficult game, and while we all want to see him back down the Iranian thugs it will not be so easy. The Russians and the French may not feel like helping, and Obama may be in a lose-lose situation. The Iranians have too many options and even releasing Saberi can be, if manipulated correctly, done from a position of power and authority, the way a king would grant a boon to an inferior. Good luck president Obama, and good luck Roxana Saberi.

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