President Obama has certainly made foreign policy mistakes, but he has also set a different tone that, in the disparate cases of Iran and Ukraine, has been the right one. The administration has understood that one of the lessons of the last ten years is that democracy is about processes not electing leaders and that a fairly elected leader who is not enthusiastically pro-American is still a leader with whom we can and should work. Another lesson has been that from Iran to Venezuela, one of the best ways to shore up domestic support for an unpopular leader is to rhetorically attack that leader in Washington. By avoiding this very tempting pitfall, Obama has weakened Ahmadinejad more than any inspiring speeches about freedom ever could have. In Iran, Obama made a tough but right decision. In Ukraine the decision was a little easier, but in either case it should be recognized that the administration got it right.
As allegations of election fraud, intimidation, violence and ballot stuffing in the recent Afghan elections increase it seems as if the election in Afghanistan is in that gray area where there was a fair amount of fraud, but it is not yet clear whether there was enough for it to have changed the outcome of the election. This puts the U.S. and other international actors in a complicated position. It is not uncommon in elections in semi-democratic, semi-authoritarian, post-conflict, or as in Afghanistan, mid-conflict countries for some amount of mid-level election fraud and misuse of resources to be discounted by international actors because “the voice of the people was heard”, or to phrase it less delicately “the guy who would’ve won (usually the incumbent), won anyway.”
For Iran’s theocrats, the Tiananmen model must have seemed very appealing. Seen through the eyes of an authoritarian, Tiananmen was a success, one crackdown, and several hundred deaths helped keep the Chinese Communist regime in power for what has now been two decades. Given the number of authoritarian regimes which have collapsed in since 1989, the appeal of the Chinese model seems even clearer. For Iran, the lessons from other countries, for example, the Soviet Union, Chile or even several post-Soviet states, is that failing to crack down or trying to negotiate some kind of compromise ends with defeat. For the Iranian regime, based on these experiences, the decision was easy.