Tehran’s brutal crackdown on democracy-hungry protestors may have defeated the most serious threat to the Iranian regime since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but the Obama Administration will continue to face the questions of how to respond to such uprisings and when to promote democracy around the world.
These questions offer no easy answers. Cultures vary, dictators rule with different kinds of iron fists and no one knows when a rebellion will gather the necessary steam to oust an oppressor.
Who could have predicted that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to reform his nation through perestroika and glasnost in the 1980s would fuel its disintegration, that Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu would be booed off stage during an open-air address in late 1989 and then flee from office, or that Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos would be driven from office after calling for presidential elections in 1986 and then fraudulently claiming victory afterwards?
History does, however, suggest some realities that the administration would be well-advised to keep in mind in the months ahead, for it surely will face the challenge again – perhaps many times – as to what to say and what to do when people in a foreign land seek to cast off the yoke of oppression.
First, even if a president remains silent during a democratic insurrection, America will almost surely become part of the story.
A regime under siege will find it all-too convenient to rally support by painting its opponents as U.S. lackeys. The recent turmoil in Iran makes the point: As President Obama declared his intention not to meddle, Iran’s top leaders were already blaming the protests on the United States and Israel.
Second, leading democratic activists often yearn for a U.S. president to publicly support their efforts, because it both helps boost morale among the dissidents and also raises the stakes for the regime.
Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky has described how his cell block in a Soviet gulag erupted in celebration upon hearing the news that President Reagan had labeled the Soviet Union the “evil empire.”
Reagan’s voice also helped bring the pressure that led to Sharansky’s release in a U.S.-Soviet prisoner exchange. Whether Obama follows suit could determine the fate of Sharansky’s successors across the globe.
“When Obama does not take a stance, the very next day these oppressive regimes will regard this as a signal,” Ayman Nour, the opposition leader to Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak whose activities have landed him in jail, told the Washington Post recently. “This is a test for his government. If they can turn a blind eye to their enemy, they can turn a blind eye to any action here in Egypt.”
Third, despite what post-America theorists suggest, America retains an enormous capacity to shape world events.
By convincing the social networking site Twitter not to close for maintenance, the administration ensured that Iranian protestors retained this vehicle for sharing information. That’s little different from how, a quarter-century ago, the Reagan Administration and labor groups in the United States and Europe smuggled copiers, fax machines and other communication devices into Sovietdominated Poland to help Solidarity, the trade union, rally support for human rights.
Fourth, presidents need not choose between promoting democracy in an authoritarian society and engaging with its masters. They can do both.
President Roosevelt worked with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to defeat Nazi Germany during World War II after earlier promoting a world “founded upon four essential human freedoms” (of speech, of religion, from want, and from fear), all of them in very short supply across the Soviet empire.
President Kennedy successfully negotiated the nuclear test ban treaty with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in mid-1963 – just a month after making clear, in his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, that the United States stood with everyone behind the Iron Curtain who sought freedom.
Fifth and finally, history suggests the United States would be wise to align itself with the forces of democracy, rather than with creaky autocracies in the Middle East and elsewhere whose days could well be numbered.
To be sure, authoritarian regimes of late have been digging in, and they have secured some recent successes. But their victories cannot obscure the larger reality – that democracy has spread far and wide in recent decades.
It will spread further. And when it does, the United States must not find itself on the wrong side of history.