Dancing in the Streets

Iranians and Turks are voting with their feet, but are these countries moving in opposite directions?

Finally, Iranians got the chance to party in the streets.

The solid election victory on Friday of the least hard-line candidate -- moderate cleric and former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani -- touched off spontaneous celebrations in the major squares and avenues of Tehran that authorities did not try to stop.

Women whipped off head scarves and drivers honked their horns in an emotional release after a largely bottled-up election campaign in which carefully vetted candidates had been forbidden from holding big outdoor rallies. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, despite his stated desire for a large turnout, had not wanted people to get too excited for fear of a reprise of the mass demonstrations that followed the last presidential elections in 2009. Now, those repressed four years ago have gotten some of their own back.

In far more democratic neighboring Turkey, meanwhile, riot police on Saturday again blasted protestors in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square and a small park nearby with water cannons and tear gas trying to definitively end two weeks of demonstrations that have convulsed the country. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed to have reached an agreement with the protestors to reconsider plans to build a replica Ottoman barracks in Gezi park and wanted the area emptied so he could stage a more congenial rally of his own on Sunday, one led by conservative Muslim supporters.

What unites these incidents in Istanbul and Tehran is not just the fact that it’s early summer and that, as the old song goes, the time is right for dancing in the streets.

From the earliest days of recorded history to today’s Twitterverse, people have come together in central places to express their views and gain strength and comfort from the presence of like-minded others. Every culture has had its agora, forum, maydan, square or park -- a place where people can literally vote with their feet. The leaders of both Turkey and Iran sought to choke off this fundamental form of expression -- and both have paid a price.

After skillfully pushing a narrative of Turkey as a modern meld of Islam and democracy, Erdogan and his AKP officials have been doing damage control this week. Besir Atalay, a deputy prime minister who happened to be in Washington for a conference, met with D.C. Turkey hands and U.S. officials to convey the message that Turkish democracy is still alive and well.

Although sparked by a small environmental rally, the Taksim demonstrations reflect pent-up anger by Turks upset by creeping Islamization, a neo-Ottoman foreign policy that inserts Turkey into conflicts in Syria and politics elsewhere in the region, and the prime minister’s growing arrogance and micro-managing.

“This is the first time we have seen massive grassroots protests in Turkey,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He predicted more such demonstrations by Turkey’s middle class -- a rapidly growing population which, Cagaptay said, is demanding “respect for the right of assembly and association,” freedom of the press, and a focus on the environment. Perhaps as damaging as the images of tear gas and water cannons turned on peaceful protestors in Taksim was Erdogan’s initial dismissal of protestors as hooligans and agents of foreign powers instead of citizens with a right to express their views. Just yesterday, he blamed Jews.

Erdogan’s language is reminiscent of that used by Iranian officials to denigrate the Green Movement back in 2009. Determined to prevent the protests that four years ago filled Tehran’s iconic Azadi Square with millions of people chanting “Where is my vote?” the Iranian government took a number of steps this year to preempt mass public expressions of political sentiment. First, the Guardian Council, the body that vets all candidates for elected office, weeded out more than 600 candidates for office -- including the most prominent representatives of views that are not solidly behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: candidates such as former president Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the close aide to outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Then, authorities prohibited the one-on-one televised debates that in 2009 produced dramatic clashes between Ahmadinejad and his chief rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi. This sparring had increased public interest in the election and may have contributed to the high turnout of more than 80 percent. Finally, for the three weeks of the officil campaign, the government blanketed the streets with police and plainclothes security to prevent the sort of rallies that turned major squares and Tehran’s central Vali-Asr avenue into night-long parties in the run-up to the 2009 vote. This was a particularly hard blow to Iranian young people, who have few other opportunities to have a good time in public. (In my experience, young folks only get to come out en masse when Iran celebrates an international soccer victory or during Ashura, a Shiite religious festival that is supposed to be solemn but has turned into an opportunity to mix with members of the opposite sex in public.)

Given these restrictions, flashes of spontaneity this year were limited. But support slowly gathered behind Rowhani after Rafsanjani and former president Mohammad Khatami endorsed him and the lone real reformist in the race dropped out. On the final day of the campaign, Rowhani addressed enthusiastic crowds inside stadiums. There were also reports of least one pro-Rowhani gathering in Tehran’s central Vanak Square on Wednesday and larger rallies in the eastern city of Mashhad. While Iranian officials sought to discourage these demonstrations, they implored people to vote.

In a revealing comment that was also posted on his Twitter account and reflects recognition of his government’s unpopularity, Supreme Leader Khamenei admonished even an Iranian “who may not want to support the Islamic system, but he wants to support his country” to go to the polls. A large turnout -- or as Khamenei called it in the days leading up to the vote, “a political epic” -- would be a blow to Iran’s foreign enemies that are trying to crush the country with sanctions, the leader said.

In the end, more than 70 percent of Iran’s 50 million eligible voters did turn out on Friday. But the message they sent was not the one of “resistance” their leader had sought. They picked a man who said he would try to ease Iran’s isolation and relieve the heavy atmosphere that has turned Iran into such a repressive society.

Back in Istanbul, however, bulldozers were demolishing tents in Gezi park. And Erdogan, who wants to run for president in 2014, is no longer assured a victory from an increasingly energized electorate. That’s democracy at work.



The Evolution of an Interventionist

How John McCain became America's unofficial ambassador of leading from the front.

In the twilight of his political career, John McCain has become the Zelig of interventionism -- that is to say that he is always there. First, he gets photobombed in Syria, where he was accused of posing with Sunni rebels who kidnapped innocent Shiite pilgrims. Next, his daughter announces that she learned her father was in Syria via Twitter. And just yesterday, he took to the Senate floor to announce that the White House had determined the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its own people, and that Washington would likely start arming the rebels -- jumping the gun on the Obama administration's own announcement of its findings.

Love him or hate him, McCain has become a surprisingly consistent voice speaking out on behalf of beleaguered citizens abroad during their worst hours. This has been particularly true on Syria. Yes, he wrote recently, he knows Americans are war-weary and there are no easy options to topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. But, he reminded Americans, "our interests are our values, and our values are our interests," and intervention could "save innocent lives, [and] give the moderate opposition a better chance to succeed."

It's not the first time McCain has prodded a reluctant White House into action. The senator argued early and often in 2011 that the United States and its allies needed to intervene in Libya to oust Muammar al-Qaddafi. As early as February 2011, a full month before the international community acted, he called on President Barack Obama to establish a no-fly zone and provide arms and funds to the rebels. As he put it, the situation "demands more than just public condemnation; it requires strong international action."

Where McCain's supporters see a tireless defender of human rights, many Democrats see a reckless hawk who never saw a Middle Eastern country he didn't want to invade. Exhibit A in this view of McCain is Iraq: The senator was an avid cheerleader for George W. Bush's campaign to topple Saddam Hussein, and later for the "surge" of troops into the country. Calling it the "right war for the right reasons," he pontificated in 2003 that "[o]nly an obdurate refusal to face unpleasant facts -- in this case, that a tyrant who survives only by the constant use of violence is not going to be coerced into good behavior by nonviolent means -- could allow one to believe that we have rushed to war." That humanitarian argument may have survived the test of time, but given the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the complete mess of an occupation by U.S. forces, many would argue that the war was still not worth the cost in blood and treasure for the United States.

McCain's quickness to argue for humanitarian and other interventions, and the heavy military hand which he often argues should be deployed, certainly make it easy to dismiss him as a hot-headed neocon eager to use force at the drop of the hat. (Playfully singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran," to the tune of the Beach Boys's "Barbara Ann," during a 2007 campaign appearance probably didn't help matters in that regard.)

But the caricature of McCain as a warmonger remains at odds with what seems to be his genuine regard for the little guy on the ground.

The senator from Arizona has immersed himself in the details of global conflicts large and small, weighing in on the side of American intervention whether it was a political boon or a considerable risk. In 1999, there were not many GOP hardliners lining up to say that President Bill Clinton's administration should offer logistical assistance to aid the East Timor independence movement. McCain did. Similarly, at a time when many in the Republican Party was quick to accuse Clinton of starting a war with Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo as a supremely Machiavellian effort to change the topic from the Monica Lewinsky scandal, McCain offered full-throated support for the intervention and pushed for the use of ground troops, even when Clinton himself was unwilling to do so.

It was equally hard to make the case that McCain was hell-bent on world domination when he joined hundreds of thousands of American college students across the country in pushing for a no-fly zone over Darfur in 2006.

But what is perhaps most interesting about McCain's brand of interventionism is that it came about so late in his career. As a freshman Congressman from Arizona's first district, McCain directly broke with the man he still describes as his "hero," Ronald Reagan, in opposing the U.S. intervention in Lebanon in the early 1980s. As McCain later explained his position, "if we send Marines in there, how can we possibly beneficially affect this situation?... Unfortunately, almost 300 brave young Marines were killed."

Yes, McCain ultimately supported the 1991 Gulf War to oust the Iraqi military from Kuwait -- but he did not favor expanding that effort to deposing Saddam Hussein, and he expressed concerns about U.S. troops getting bogged down on the ground. It is also important to note that Republicans overwhelmingly supported this war, and McCain was eager to change the subject from the Keating Five banking scandal in advance of his 1992 re-election campaign.

As the Cold War ended and small, complex conflicts erupted across the globe, McCain repeatedly urged America to stay at arm's length. He advocated against U.S. troops becoming involved in Bosnia, saying that the United States risked taking sides in a foreign civil war, in which American troops would have a hard time "distinguishing between friend and foe." In 1993, he pushed to withdraw U.S. troops from Somalia, and railed against the folly of nation-building there. In 1994, he strongly opposed the U.S. intervention in Haiti, insisting that there was simply no national security interest in doing so.

But sober reflection on the cost of U.S. inaction -- measured in the deaths of thousands of innocents in conflicts across the globe -- seems to have changed McCain's tune. "I think so, I think so," the then presidential candidate replied in 2008, when asked whether the violence in Rwanda and Bosnia had fundamentally changed his thinking about America's role in the world. "And Darfur today."

McCain clearly feels he is a "realistic idealist" -- a figure intent on using American power to advance human rights, but still aware of the limitations of that power. It is an important stance for Syria today, a subject on which the voices of the realists seem to have decidedly drowned out the idealists. For McCain and others pushing for stronger action from Washington, the ultimate tipping point is fairly clear -- when both realists and idealists recognize the cost of inaction is potentially even higher than that of intervention.

McCain may be wrong as often as he is right. He may drive both Democrats and Republicans to distraction. But standing up for innocent civilians caught in the modern world's slaughterhouses is far from a sin.

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