This weekend, the closest the Obama administration got to calling a spade a spade -- the obvious stealing of the Iranian election by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- was Vice President Joe Biden expressing "doubts" about the legitimacy of the outcome.
Perhaps that's fitting: It was Biden who famously said -- during the general election campaign -- that the world would "test" a new President Obama. Of course, most people anticipated that this would take the shape of some international crisis that would potentially put American lives at risk -- such as Iran's getting closer to a nuclear bomb.
Well, the reality might not be quite what some people were thinking, but Iran is the test. But who could guess that "democracy" might be a more difficult proposition now. Third-party observers who know both Iran and the region well have concluded that the declared election result is a fraud. If the protests continue being brutally put down, what does Barack Obama do? The question is all the more poignant in that this election comes just a couple weeks after the anniversary of China's Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Does the president have the luxury of doing as George H.W. Bush and James Baker did 10 years ago? Basically, verbally condemn what was occurring but then collectively shrug the nation's shoulders in a "move along, folks, nothing to see here" manner?
Since that time, there have been more freedom movements across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as the introduction of a democracy (fragile as it might be) in neighboring Iraq.
To its embarrassment, the European Union has apparently decided to adopt that tactic -- announcing that it had recognized Ahmadinejad's victory, even as reports started coming in of Iranian police bashing protesters and invading college dorm rooms.
A little more than a week ago, when Lebanon went to the polls just hours after Obama's Cairo speech -- the pro-West/pro-US ticket won -- the administration was happy to tout (off the record, though it may be) a clear case of an "Obama Effect" inspiring Lebanese to reject the idea of an Hezbollah de facto government. In fact, some reports assert that the mullahs in Iran fixed the vote because they feared an Obama effect would be enough to sweep Mir Hossein Mousavi into power.
Now, rather than deal with just Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, President Obama has to deal with a regime that isn't just crushing an election, but also clamping down on all media -- both Iran's own organizations as well as that of Western outlets. So, the regime is now not merely belligerent, but also arguably, illegitimate and willing to strangle what little civil liberties the country had.
How does a United States president -- who gave a speech little more than a week ago urging more openness from the Muslim World -- not reject this officiall tally and offer global condemnation of Ahmadinejad's "victory?" What can Obama say? What will he say -- eventually? Is there fear that criticizing the results could put Mousavi in even more danger?
Barack Obama is being tested right now. Just as the whole world has been made aware of Iran's situation, so to is that world watching -- and tweeting -- the reaction of the United States when the principle of democracy itself is being threatened.
Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged T hots.