Republicans call Obama timid on Iran
Critics say president needs to take a tougher public stand
NBC News Channel
3:56 p.m. PT, Sun., June 21, 2009
WASHINGTON - In his first major test of international leadership, President Barack Obama is struggling for the right stance in the face of Iran's postelection upheaval as political opponents at home accuse him of inaction.
"The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States," Obama said in an interview released Sunday. "We shouldn't be playing into that."
The president spoke Friday during an interview with CBS News' Harry Smith. It will be broadcast Monday on "The Early Show."
Story continues below ↓advertisement | your ad here
Obama's measured statements so far attempt to speak up for human rights while preserving U.S. options and lessening the chance that he becomes a scapegoat for the cleric-led government, which has blamed the West for starting trouble.
Kept a public silence Sunday
Obama kept a public silence Sunday, although a spokesman said he discussed Iran with foreign policy advisers in the Oval Office for more than 30 minutes. He later went golfing in Virginia.
Protesters in Iran again defied the government and held a large rally in the capital, Tehran.
The White House did not book any surrogates on the Sunday morning television talk shows to defend or explain the administration's approach. Republicans used their broadcast appearances to call the president timid or feckless, while Democrats said Obama has struck the right balance in his response.
A day earlier, Obama invoked the American civil rights struggle to condemn violence against demonstrators, some of whom have carried signs in English asking, "Where is My Vote?" It was his strongest statement on what has become the most significant challenge to Iran's ruling structure since the Islamic revolution 30 years ago.
Both the House of Representatives and Senate voted overwhelmingly last week to condemn an official crackdown on the mostly peaceful demonstrations.
"The president of the United States is supposed to lead the free world, not follow it," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican. "He's been timid and passive more than I would like."
Sen. John McCain, the defeated Republican presidential candidate, and others noted that Western leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have demanded a recount or more forcefully condemned the government crackdown.
"I'd like to see the president be stronger than he has been although I appreciate the comments that he made yesterday," McCain said. "I think we ought to have America lead."
'Do we really believe in our principles?'
Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, said a slow or muted U.S. response risks undermining the aspirations of Iranian voters to change or question their government.
"If America stands for democracy and all of these demonstrations are going on in Tehran and other cities over there, and people don't think that we really care, then obviously they're going to question, "do we really believe in our principles?'" Grassley said.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson, a Republican, said Obama isn't doing nearly enough, while conservative commentator William Bennett said Obama is bungling his response.
Trying to hold a middle ground
Obama has tried to hold a middle ground as the crisis unfolds, and found the ground shifting by the day. His advisers say any thunderous denunciation of Iran's rulers would invite them to blame Western interference and might worsen the violence instead of end it. The death toll has risen as shadowy militias and other forces have shot and attacked demonstrators.
Sen. Richard Lugar, a moderate Republican who holds the party's top position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seemed to echo Obama's caution.
"The challenge continues, which is going to come to a conclusion one way or another," Lugar said. "Either the protesters bring about change or they're suppressed, and it's a potentially very brutal outcome at the end of the day."
Obama on Saturday challenged Iran's government to halt a "violent and unjust" crackdown on dissenters, and he quoted civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
"Right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian people's belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness," Obama said.
The statement calling for an end to violence against demonstrators followed days of agonizing among his staff over what to say and how strongly to say it.
It also followed a wrong note from Obama last week, when he said he saw little difference between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hard-liner who claims a landslide re-election mandate, and his conservative but pro-reform challenger. That left the impression that Obama discounted the votes of Mir Hossein Mousavi's supporters or the bravery of protesters who marched to say their votes were stolen.
Incumbent Ahmadinejad claimed victory by an overwhelming margin following a lively campaign that many analysts predicted would yield razor-close results. The speed with which his victory was announced and vote claims in areas where he was at a clear disadvantage caused outrage among Mousavi's backers.
'A very delicate path to walk here'
Democrats in the Senate say Obama has responded appropriately to a delicate situation.
"He's got a very delicate path to walk here," said Sen. Chris Dodd. "You don't want to take ownership of this."
"The worst thing we could do at this moment for these reformers, these protesters, these courageous people in Tehran, is allow the government there to claim that this is a U.S.-led opposition, a U.S.-led demonstration," said Dodd, emphasizing Obama's longer-term goal of engaging Iran over its nuclear program.
The United States and much of the Western world believes Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. Iran says it is only trying to develop nuclear reactors to generate electricity.
Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat, agreed with Obama's response. "I think the president is handling a rapidly evolving, very complex situation about as well as you could expect. He has put us clearly on the side of the reformers, clearly on the side of fair and free elections, clearly condemned the violence," he said.
Dodd and Graham appeared on ABC television's "This Week," McCain was on CBS' "Face the Nation," Lugar and Grassley spoke on "State of the Union" on CNN, and Bayh spoke on "Fox News Sunday."