Rulers, Masses, and Elites

Reihan says in his latest column for The Daily Beast: “The great danger of Obama’s response to the street protests in Iran has been that he’d choose Iran’s thuggish ruling class over Iran’s masses on the grounds that Serious People don’t fret about human rights when grand strategy is at stake.”

“Choosing Iran’s masses” sounds to me just as bad as tacitly supporting the “thuggish ruling class.” Our solidarity with the Iranian protesters is, necessarily, a snub to “Iran’s masses,” many of whom make up the basiji milita and Ahmadinejad’s constituency. If Reihan wants Obama to support a particular Iranian faction and their goals of liberalization and reform, he’s welcome to argue so, but he ought not demand that the US president become the advocate for an imagined Iranian polity.

We like and we admire the minority of relatively liberal, cosmopolitan Iranians protesting against their odious president and his supporters. To deserve our sympathy and support, the protesters need not be disenfranchised stewards of the Iranian popular will; our affinities need not extend to the broader Iranian population, a large portion of which probably relishes the spectacle of protesters being beaten by basiji. On the other hand, we don’t need to make some considered judgment as to the relative merits of Mousavi before expressing solidarity with the protesters. It should be enough to say, “here is a group of people with whom I share political and cultural sensibilities, and regardless of the poor choices available to them at the ballot box, I’d like to see them prevail against their cruel political rivals.” There’s no shame in choosing a team — especially an underdog — and rooting for it.

The great danger of Obama’s response is not, as Reihan suggests, that he would express too much support for an illegitimate clique of rulers. It’s that he would, like Reihan does, transfer our sympathy for the protesters onto an imagined version of Iran, one in which the population suffers together beneath an oppressive “ruling class.”