More Packer

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First, please see my update to my previous post about Packer’s reaction to Iran.

Second, I think he gets this wrong, too, trying to explain his criticisms by putting himself in the shoes of an Iranian protester:

Every day you have to summon the courage to go out into the streets (where the death toll is now reportedly at thirty-two), and your awareness of international opinion is steadily diminishing as Internet and phone access is choked off. A part of your mind is alert to the danger of being labeled an American agent, always a factor in the regime’s propaganda; but given the enormous risks you’re already running, a much larger part of your mind is afraid that the world is going to lose interest or write you off, that the regime is going to stop feeling any international pressure to behave with restraint, and that when the guns start mowing protesters down in earnest, no one will be watching. When the stakes are this high, being the object of too much foreign concern is not likely to be your number one fear.

The obvious problem with this argument is that it’s completely subjective.  That might be how Packer would think in that situation, but it’s not, for instance, how I would think in that situation.

If I’m an Iranian who has put my life on the line for Iranian democracy by taking to the streets, it’s because I believe that cause worth my life.  It’s bigger than me, more important than me, more valuable than my individual life; I prefer its success to my survival.  That’s why I take to the streets.  The last thing I would want would be for somebody like the US to doom that cause, which I’m not willing to sacrifice, by trying too hard to support me, who I am willing to sacrifice.

That’s the thing I would be most worried about.  Whether or not the world was paying attention would be important to me, but secondary.

Hence the problem with Packer’s argument.  He would be more concerned about international inattention to the violence being done him.  I would be more concerned about the cause I’ve risked that violence for being undermined.

Who knows how actual Iranians actually in that actual situation actually feel?  Neither of us.

So I don’t think we can decide how we will react to their situation by trying to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine what we would want.  We have to set our policy based on its most likely effect.  As far as I can tell, we have basically 2 options:

  1. take a strong stance on behalf of the protesters and against the current regime, on the theory that our doing so will encourage the former, put pressure on the latter, and thereby tip the balance toward the protesters; or,
  2. take a more low-key approach, on the theory that the US’s history in Iranian politics would make us at best a toxic asset for the protesters, that the protesters’ greatest power comes from the dignity and moral authority of their peaceful, self-organizing demonstrations against a regime they and the whole world know is willing to arrest, imprison, or kill them, and that therefore our taking a strong stance on their behalf would only tip the balance toward the current regime.

I think the latter theory is more likely correct, and therefore favor Obama’s current, low-key approach.

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One Response to “More Packer”

  1. urbino Says:

    TWI’s Spencer Ackerman also doesn’t think Packer’s imagination is much of a policy guide.

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