Obama and the Iranian election
Normative or empirical decisions?
A (so far mostly web-based) debate has emerged on what President Obama should do vis-a-vis Saturday's elections in Iran (scroll down to 6:21 PM). Those particularly passionate about the issue will likely confuse this for a moral question — it largely is not. Obama most certainly supports democracy in Iran. Thus, how he should respond is a mostly empirical question about how to best achieve democracy, not a normative one about whether democracy is the goal (note: there is a normative component to the debate, namely the priority of possibly conflicting U.S. goals in Iran – democracy, non-proliferation, liberalism, etc).
The important take away here is that one's support for the protesters in Iran should not necessarily lead one to conclude that President Obama should ta
ke a more active role in promoting their cause or explicitly opposing Ahmadinejad's reelection. One may passionately believe that we should do everything effective that we can do to promote democracy in Iran and still think this means we should do nothing. As the Legislative Director of the National Iranian American Council argues, “before we Americans come rushing onto the scene with an offer of help for the process of democratization in Iran, we need to be certain that…it won't in fact do more harm than good.”
Of course, it may in fact be the case that the most effective thing President Obama can do is to explicitly challenge the legitimacy of the elections and support the peaceful protesters. But this conclusion will have to come from empirical beliefs, not moral ones.