Each Country Is What It Is, And Not Another Country
There’s an Eastern European theme developing on the right. Here’s one version:
“Someday a future president may have to apologize to Iranians for Mr. Obama’s nonfeasance, just as Mr. Obama apologized for the Eisenhower administration’s meddling. But the better Eisenhower parallel is with Hungary in 1956. Then as now a popular uprising coalesced around a figure (Imre Nagy in Hungary; Mir Hossein Mousavi in Iran), who had once been a creature of the system. Then as now it was buoyed by inspiring American rhetoric about freedom and democracy coming over Voice of America airwaves. And then as now the administration effectively turned its back on the uprising when U.S. support could have made a difference.”
“Reagan took a stand on freedom, where Obama sounds desperate for engagement with the forces of oppression. Germany’s Angela Merkel took a much tougher stand than Obama did, calling the oppression “totally unacceptable,” while all Obama can say is that it’s “deeply troubling”.
It’s the difference between leadership and management. Reagan led, and he inspired the Poles to continue the struggle that eventually helped free half of Europe from iron-fisted domination by the Soviet Union. Obama wants to manage the crisis to keep from having to lead. Big, big difference.”
This parallel only works if you don’t think about the details at all. In the 1980s, we had been opposed to the USSR for decades. The people of Eastern Europe were opposed to it too: the USSR was, after all, occupying their countries. While we might not have taken up their cause as clearly as some people would have liked, we had never oppressed them; our adversary had. Our support was therefore generally welcomed.
Iran is, of course, a different story entirely. We can debate whether we or the British played the biggest role in toppling the Mossadegh government, but it is beyond debate that we played a crucial role in the overthrow of Iran’s last fully democratic government. We then kept in power a dictator who terrorized the Iranian people and squandered their resources for over a quarter of a century, and who maintained a secret police, which we helped train, that killed thousands, and used torture methods including “electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails.”
Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, we have been consistently hostile to the Iranian government. We have maintained economic sanctions against them, and now have troops more or less surrounding their country. We spent the last few years threatening to bomb them, and saying ludicrous things about real men going to Tehran.
I am not saying any of this because I want to get into the pros and cons of our Iran policy. That’s not relevant to my point, which is just this: we are not very popular in Iran.
And that is why comparisons to Reagan and Eastern Europe are ludicrous. We can debate how important Reagan’s various pronouncements about Eastern Europe were, but I do not recall anyone suggesting that they would not be welcomed by Eastern European dissidents, or would harm their cause. In this case, they could do real harm, which is why no Iranian human rights activists and opposition leaders that I’m aware of have called on Obama to speak out.
Question: do the people who make these arguments not know this? If they don’t — if they really believe that the question how Obama should respond is in any way like the question how Reagan should have responded to Eastern Europe — then they are completely ignorant of Iran’s history, and have no business commenting at all.
If they do know this, then either they genuinely believe that Obama ought to come out in favor of the protesters or they don’t. In the first case, I think they are deeply unwise. (Matt Yglesias on McCain: “a dangerous madman whose ideas would risk incredibly suffering and destruction around the world.”) In the second, they are advocating a policy that they know would harm the demonstrators they claim to support, demonstrators who are risking their lives. That would be deeply cynical, and vile beyond belief.