Protesters hit the streets demanding freedom and fair elections. A repressive government strikes back and denounces the dissidents as unpatriotic subversives. Change, even revolution, is in the air.

Liberals and progressives should be natural allies of those trying to overturn the existing order. They stand for democracy, equality and freedom, or they stand for nothing. In principle, it’s conservatives who preach prudence.

But there is a tension in the progressive worldview. Usually, the left also favors restraint in foreign policy. It typically prefers negotiation to war, advises caution in the use of American power, and recoils at what it sees as the trigger-happiness of parts of the right. Iraq is Exhibit A for the dangers of presuming that American power can easily remake the world.

As Iranians battle in the streets to transform their nation, President Obama finds himself caught squarely in this liberal dilemma.

Before the election, he had set the United States on a path to negotiation with Iran’s government — the very government whose legitimacy was crumbling over the weekend as it cracked down hard on the opposition. As a foreign policy realist, Obama knew that at the end of the current struggle the United States would still have to deal with Iran on the issue of its nuclear program and other matters related to our “long-term interests.”

Moreover, it’s true that if the United States government embraced the courageous partisans of Iran’s opposition too warmly, it could discredit them and create a rationale for the repression their foes hoped to unleash anyway.

But as the protesters gained strength and their valor seized the world’s imagination, the president began realizing that discretion was insufficient. Slowly, the administration’s line has toughened, though not nearly enough to satisfy the many conservatives who were against Obama’s Iranian engagement policy in the first place.

For Obama’s critics, this one is a no-brainer. Their counsel: Stand tall for freedom and human rights, trash the repressive mullahs, and let the chips fall. If the opposition wins, everybody wins. If the regime cracks down and manages to survive, engagement is dead. That, from the point of view of Obama’s critics, is win-win.

In fact, Obama was right to exercise caution, both because the United States should not imply false promises to the regime’s opponents that we won’t be able to keep, and because our embrace could, indeed, hurt them. And, paradoxically, European political leaders have been outspoken in support of the Iranian democrats precisely because Obama’s restraint gave them room to act independently.

But if Obama, as the leader of the U.S. government, has to exercise great care in calculating his moves, rank-and-file progressives and liberals outside the government should be unwavering and unabashed in championing the Iranian push for freedom. Writing last week in The New Republic about how to deal with Iran’s repressive ruling class, the political philosopher Michael Walzer nicely summarized the proper division of labor: “For liberals and leftists — opposition and nothing else; for state diplomats — handshakes and negotiation.”

Yet events over the weekend were spinning beyond this sensible approach. If the Iranian regime simply suppresses its political adversaries, it will be impossible anytime soon to resume diplomacy as if nothing has happened. And even if the present government survives in the short term, we now know that its hold on power is shaky. There is more opposition in Iran than we — and probably Iranians themselves — knew existed, and thus more opportunity for change.

That’s why Obama had to toughen his rhetoric. He sent a clear message on Saturday when he called on the Iranian government “to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people” and warned that it could not expect “the respect of the international community” if it failed to “respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.”

The president, in concert with our allies, is now telling the Iranian regime that it will pay a price for repression. The bottom line of American policy must be that no matter how committed we are to negotiation, we are also committed democrats.

Obama’s initial caution served the interests of freedom by making clear that the revolt against Iran’s flawed election is homegrown. As the struggle continues, we cannot pretend that we are indifferent to its outcome.

It’s not easy to walk the progressive path. But Obama has always said that he knows how to deal with complexity. This is his chance to prove it.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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