Over the weekend, both conservative columnist George Will and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan argued that conservative criticism of President Obama's rhetorical restraint amidst the Iranian protests was unwarranted.
"The president is being roundly criticized for insufficient rhetorical support for what's going on over there. It seems foolish criticism," Will said.
"To insist the American president, in the first days of the rebellion, insert the American government into the drama was shortsighted and mischievous," Noonan wrote. "The ayatollahs were only too eager to demonize the demonstrators as mindless lackeys of the Great Satan Cowboy Uncle Sam, or whatever they call us this week."
Both Will and Noonan are right that Obama should not endorse former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, but the president should certainly speak up for the principles of freedom, liberty, and free elections. He should point out that Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, and Turks — almost all of Iran's neighbors — have freely chosen governments, and that this is a right that the Iranian people should also enjoy. Indeed, he can cite the Iranian legacy of elections going back to the constitutional revolution early last century. Right now, the Iranians are suffocating under a media blackout. In Tehran during the 1999 student uprising, I remember the frustration in the streets at the lackluster international response, especially as Iranian state television began broadcasting forced confessions.
If Obama were to get on Radio Farda or Voice of America Persian service and speak directly to the Iranian people, if he were to admit he was wrong to have implied that the supreme leader was their legitimate spokesman, that might have tremendous effect. Ilya Zaslavsky, a democratic-bloc leader in the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies, credited Ronald Reagan rather than Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with originating the perestroika reforms.
If Obama is going to shirk his duty, then it is time for the Congress to speak up. In the early 1970s, as now, many in the foreign-policy establishment opposed any freedom-and-democracy agenda, but congressional activism helped overcome their resistance. Henry Kissinger opposed the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which linked trade with the Soviet Union to that country's treatment of Jewish emigration, for fear that it could disrupt other diplomatic initiatives; but dissidents — not just Jewish ones — in the Soviet Union subsequently acknowledged how important that bill's passage was. We should all be thankful that Ukrainians did not heed Pres. George H. W. Bush's advice to work within the Soviet framework in his infamous "Chicken Kiev" speech.
Will the Iranian government try to taint the protestors as lackeys of the United States? Yes. But they will do this regardless of whether Obama speaks up. Former Carter aide Gary Sick and pro-engagement voices like Trita Parsi and James Dobbins condemned George W. Bush's democracy assistance, saying that it sparked the Islamic Republic's crackdown on civil society. The crackdown had begun years before, however, and had been foreshadowed by Hamid Reza Taraqi, the head of the hard-line Islamic Coalition party, before any U.S. initiative was announced. Too often, critics of White House policy exculpate the worst regimes in order to score political points.
The Islamic Republic's attacks on peaceful dissent are nothing new. The regime has always blamed Great Britain, the United States, Bahais, Zionists, and/or Jews for every ill that befalls the country. When the leadership claims God's mantle, it is hard to accept accountability for the failure of leadership; it is far easier to find straw men to blame.
Don't underestimate the Iranian people, however. The protestors are no longer supporting former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi; they are chanting "Death to the Dictator" [Khamenei]. They are opposing the Islamic Republic. While conspiracy theories loom large in Iranian culture — indeed, Iranians poke fun at their conspiratorial nature in often-humorous ways — the Iranian people can separate the wheat from the chaff. Those inclined to believe Kayhan, the Islamic Republic News Agency, or the Fars News Agency will do so no matter what we do. Those disinclined will not swallow regime propaganda simplemindedly.
Obama promised to transform America's image in the world. Excising freedom and liberty from our brand is not the way to do it. Remaining silent is not neutral; it is casting a vote for the status quo, including the primacy of the supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It is time for Obama and Congress to speak loud and clear in defense of freedom.
Michael Rubin, a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.