Shadow Government

Will the Iranian regime ever do right?

The Iranian regime regularly serves reminders of its malevolence: its support for Hezbollah and Hamas terrorism, its killing of American troops in Iraq, its support for Bashar al-Assad's massacres of Syrian dissidents, its brutality to its own citizens during the Green Movement protests, or its persecution of religious minorities such as Bahais, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians.

In the latter category is the urgent case of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian Christian pastor in the city of Rasht who this week was found guilty of the "crime" of apostasy for his conversion from Islam to Christianity. Under shari'a law apostasy is a capital offense. Knowing this, Pastor Nadarkhani on three consecutive days this week still refused before the court to renounce his Christian faith and return to Islam. Many reports indicate that Pastor Nadarkhani faces the very real possibility of execution.  Even if the court releases him, he would not be spared danger. Religious freedom advocates remember the cases of Iranian pastors such as Mehdi Dibaj (also a convert from Islam), Haik Hovsepian-Mehr, Tateos Michaelian, and Mohammad Bagher Yusefi who were all abducted and murdered in the 1990s, very likely by Iranian intelligence agents.

The White House, State Department, and Speaker of the House Boehner have all issued statements calling on the Iranian Government to spare Pastor Nadarkhani's life, as have other Members of Congress and world leaders such as British Foreign Minister William Hague. These are welcome steps and serve notice to Tehran -- which does care about its international image - that its oppression does not go unnoticed. There are several additional diplomatic measures that can be taken. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice should remonstrate with her Iranian counterpart at Turtle Bay, Mohammad Khazaee. Related, the Obama Administration can demonstrate the utility of America's renewed membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council by pushing in Geneva for an emergency Council resolution condemning Iran's treatment of Pastor Nadarkhani and calling for the preservation of his life and his immediate release. And though the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, the State Department can work to mobilize other nations that do -- such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany -- to issue protests through their embassies in Tehran. Finally, Obama and Clinton can speak out publicly and in person to call for Pastor Nadarkhani's release.

The Iranian Mission to the U.N.'s website rather audaciously proclaims that "as a founding member of the United Nations, Iran believes deeply in the ideals of the organization and the purposes and principles of its Charter." Would that it were so -- especially since Article 18 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief."

Though he is just one man, Pastor Nadarkhani's case exemplifies the situation faced by many other Iranians of all faiths, who desire only to believe, worship, and live peaceably without the oppression of the state. As the world watches, will the regime in Tehran do right?


Shadow Government

What the al-Awlaki strike tells us about Obama as a wartime commander-in-chief

The news that U.S. forces have killed radical cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi marks an important threshold in the war on terror.  

Reasonable people can disagree about whether this will constitute a demoralizing blow to the global terrorist network -- aside from bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Awlaki was probably the most prominent al Qaeda linked figure at large -- or whether it will simply inspire more "martyrs" to AQ's cause.  And they can disagree about whether it was legal/ethical for Obama to target an American citizen who was not convicted in court, or whether the Obama administration is over-relying on targeted drone strikes and is  insufficiently attentive to the downsides.  My own sense is that this dramatic event will intensify the international debate about the drone strikes and that the clamor could come to resemble similar complaints about Gitmo and the interrogation of detainees in the first decade of the war.

But I don't think reasonable people can disagree about two other things: first, whether the Obama administration is treating this struggle as a war and second, whether the Obama administration is across-the-board too soft on terrorists.  I should say, they can't disagree about this any longer since I understand why there were doubts before.  Those doubts are hard to sustain now.

First, it is clear that the administration views this struggle as a war, whatever silly spin they tried out before regarding "overseas contingency operations" against "man-made disasters." This latest drone strike is only lawful under the laws of armed conflict (i.e. the laws of war), and even then only under the particular (expansive) interpretation of the legal regime that Bush invoked when he declared this a war.  President Obama may be squeamish about being explicit and clear in his rhetoric, and he is certainly ambivalent about his role as wartime commander-in-chief and all of the associated responsibilities that entails, but he has repeatedly ordered kinetic action that can only be justified if one understands that America is at war with an adversary that does not resemble the adversaries we used to fight in so-called traditional wars. You can claim Obama should not be treating this as a war, and you can claim that Obama has not applied the war-frame consistently across the range of his policies.  But there can be no doubt that, at least in this one area, Obama views this as a war: He has to, otherwise he has ordered unlawful actions.

Second, it is beyond dispute that in one important area Obama is tough on terrorists, arguably tougher in this one respect than Bush.  Bush inaugurated the use of drone strikes in the war, but Obama dramatically ramped up the pace, has been willing to sustain this pace despite the corrosive effect it has had on our crucial partnership with Pakistan, and now has been willing to cross another symbolic threshold with today's strike.  And as was the case with the bin Laden raid, today's strike reflects a military unilateralism that rivals anything done in the Bush era.

Obama is, in short, the Rambo of drone warfare and so it is not fair to accuse him of being soft on terrorists. This is a heavily caveated assessment, for one of the differences between Obama and Bush is that Bush developed a more coherent and systematic strategy and embedded the kinetic dimension within that larger strategy (reasonable people can debate how effective the Bush administration was in implementing that strategy). Obama's overall strategy is not as coherent and systematic (cf. Iraq policy, artificial and arbitrary timelines, inattention to mobilizing support, etc.).  And on some of his terror policies, the incoherence does seem tied in part to what critics could consider "softness."  But there is no doubt that Obama, as he promised during the 2008 campaign, has shown a vigor in deploying one important weapon in his arsenal: drone strikes.

This strike doesn't mean that Obama is invulnerable to campaign critiques about his handling of the war on terrorism, let alone critiques about his handling of national security more broadly.  But it does mean that his Republican challenger will have to develop a sophisticated critique, and can't rely on the kinds of  caricatures that were so effective against, say, Dukakis, or even Carter.  There are plenty of areas where one could argue that Obama has been too "soft," but when it comes to kinetic military action, Obama presents a more complex picture and so will warrant a more nuanced critique.