Monday, June 22, 2009

Are they Demanding Democracy?

Watching coverage of the Iranian election protests, one could easily conclude that the mobs are conducting their own Tiananmen Square, demanding fundamental freedoms from an oppressive regime.

But is this conclusion accurate? Is that what the protesters are demanding? Are they clamoring for free speech and due process? Did our invasion-turned-democratic experiment in Iraq finally catch on to the point that Iranians now get that Western-style freedom is a good thing and are ready to throw their Islamic backwardness aside? Did the Iranians begin saying to themselves, “Hey, it turns out this is a repressive regime that steals elections and abuses women! Let’s revolt and demand our freedoms!”? Or could it be that they are just storming against a regime they believe stole an election from their preferred candidate?

It is tempting for Americans to witness demonstrations such as these and assume that they are being done on behalf of freedom and democracy as we think of it. We as Americans need to be careful when interpreting events from halfway across the globe. When we see people protesting against the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, many of us are assuming that since Ahmadinejad is the latest reincarnation of Hitler, these people must be demanding a bill of rights.

To be sure, the American media have wasted no time in telling everyone that Ahmadinejad had his reelection stolen for him. They also wasted no time in reminding everyone that he was an Iranian Revolution rebel of 1979 and may have even taken part in the abduction of 52 Americans in that same year. Couple that with his oft-cited remarks on Israel and everyone is told that the world’s largest rodent needs to be stopped, even if it requires the U.S. government’s favorite course of action: military intervention followed by regime change. Based on that logic, anybody would be better than Adolf Jr. and that man was obviously Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Well, maybe.

The vanquished candidate, Mousavi, was portrayed as a reform-minded pro-American democrat. If he was in fact a reform candidate of any caliber, it was perhaps only because he appeared saner than his rival. Like Ahmadinejad, Mousavi also has ties to the Iranian Revolution and served as prime minister shortly after the shah made his expeditious getaway. Like Ahmadinejad, Mousavi not only sees a nuclear program as Iran’s right, but he was the instigator of the program (and agrees with Ahmadinejad about that Holocaust-denial thingy). But unlike Ahmadinejad, Mousavi was the prime minister of Iran who may very well have ordered the attack on American marines in Beirut.

Knowing this, does it really matter who honestly prevailed in that election?

If Ahmadinejad is Hitler, then Mousavi may just be Mussoulini. And if those simplistic and cartoonish characterizations are true, would this be worth embroiling the United States?

So what is the point of President Obama making any sort of statement of solidarity with the protesters? Again, we don’t know if they’re demanding their Western-style freedoms or if they’re just enraged that their guy lost and think the Ayatollah Khamenei stole it.

Importantly, making any sort of statement, benign or bombastic, could have backlash against the people we want to help and inadvertently empower the current regime.

Why is that? Are those Iranians too stupid to figure out that they should have freedoms like Americans?

Well, the consequences could be dire; for thirty years, America has been seen as their enemy. Four years ago Ahmadinejad was elected after Iranians witnessed the United States invade two of Iran’s neighbors. And if Obama actually talked tough, it would be all the reason the Ayatollah and Ahmadinejad need to remind the masses that America continues to be aggressive against Iran. There is no easier avenue through which to consolidate power than under an emergency, or the pretense of one. Just ask Rahm Emanuel.

Making a statement of any belligerence will condemn the protesters to the mercy of the Ayatollah. For decades, the Iranians have been taught that America is their enemy. If we give the protesters the perception that they are pro-American by actively stating our support for them, it will make an already oppressive regime murderous as they will have carte blanche to treat the protesters as though they are American poodles and, ergo, enemies of the regime.

With the perception Iranians have of America, one that is probably shared by more than a few of the protesters, we shouldn’t expect any statement from the United States to benefit the protesters any more than George W. Bush’s endorsement helped John McCain. And no amount of narcissistic posturing about human rights will save a single protestor from the brutality of the Iranian regime.

Also, to show solidarity presupposes that who wins elections in Iran is any business of the United States in the first place.

Another thing to consider is if there is some sort of U.S. involvement in this mess, do we KNOW that the protestors are going to greet us as their liberators? Or are we prepared to demonstrate to the world that we have really learned nothing from our Iraqi boondoggle?

On this occasion, the proper course for the United States should be to stay home and watch. Why stir the pot if the alternative, Mousavi, might not be any better in practice than Ahmadinejad? And whether Mousavi or Ahmadinejad is the titular ruler in Iran is no choice worth making and it is not worth a single American life.

Let us not confuse anti-government sentiment with pro-American and pro-democratic zeal.


TRUTH 101 said...

This is the third time I read your post Carl. Each time it gets even better.

You sure we can't get you into the Democratic Party?

Left Coast Rebel said...

Carl, I couldn't agree more. There are several things about these protests that trouble me as well and you have hit the nail on the head here,(as I would expect you to).

If Ahmadinejad is Hitler, then Mousavi may just be Mussoulini

Exactly right. To be sure, several weeks ago when this thing broke out I was unanimously behind the protests. But I did more reading on the topic, and like you, came to nearly the same conclusion. Thus nary a mention on my blog now...
Keep up the great posts, another great one.

Carl Wicklander said...

Heh heh. Truth, I'm afraid you're just going to have to settle with me voting against the Republicans via third party, most of the time, anyway.

I do have to applaud you, though. At a time when a lot of Democrats are forgetting how to be antiwar now that Bush is gone, you've stayed consistent. I'm proud to have you as a loyal reader.

Carl Wicklander said...

LCR, I noticed that most partisans on both the right and left have been pretty much in unanimity on the issue of the election and the protests. When our pathological lying media is united like this, I prefer to take a step back and see what's really happening. I've discovered that rarely are things the way they tell us they are. And you've discovered that too. This is not a good situation and Mousavi is not our friend.

Tom the Redhunter said...

"It is tempting for Americans to witness demonstrations such as these and assume that they are being done on behalf of freedom and democracy as we think of it."

An excellent point, and indeed something to consider.

My take is that the protesters can't be said to have any one motivation. Some want Mousavi, but others want liberty along our lines. Unless there's something out there I'm missing there's no accurate polling so we really can't say.

"The vanquished candidate, Mousavi, was portrayed as a reform-minded pro-American democrat."

By who? Besides hack bloggers, I mean. Please cite a reputable source for this assertion because this is certainly not what I've read. Almost everwhere I've gone on the Internet and seen on TV people understand he's only maybe marginally better than Ahmadinejad.

"Importantly, making any sort of statement, benign or bombastic, could have backlash against the people we want to help and inadvertently empower the current regime."

I do not buy this at all, and would like to see some historical evidence from you that "bombastic" statements from U.S. presidents have resulted in empowering tyranical regimes.

In fact, I think that straight, hard language, does just the opposite.

The perfect example is Ronald Reagan, who famously called the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire" which at home gained him much grief from liberals. Abroad, however, it was a different story.

Reagan's words gave imprisoned dissidents heart, and hope for the future. Anatoly Sharansky (now Natan Sharansky) spent eight years in the gulag. When he was there, Reagan gave his famous "evil empire" speech. Western liberals were appalled, but Sharansky and other imprisoned dissidents had a different reaction:

Q: Were there any particular Reagan moments that you can recall being sources of strength or encouragement to you and your colleagues?

Sharansky: I have to laugh. People who take freedom for granted, Ronald Reagan for granted, always ask such questions. Of course! It was the great brilliant moment when we learned that Ronald Reagan had proclaimed the Soviet Union an Evil Empire before the entire world. There was a long list of all the Western leaders who had lined up to condemn the evil Reagan for daring to call the great Soviet Union an evil empire right next to the front-page story about this dangerous, terrible man who wanted to take the world back to the dark days of the Cold War. This was the moment. It was the brightest, most glorious day. Finally a spade had been called a spade. Finally, Orwell's Newspeak was dead. President Reagan had from that moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union.

Tom the Redhunter said...

Part II:

George W. Bush was similarly correct to label Iran, North Korea, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein an "Axis of Evil." As with Reagan, he caught nothing but grief from liberals, but has been proven correct by events.

What a U.S. president says is closely monitored by dissidents in totalitarian countries. What he says can either give them hope, or demoralize them. Reagan's "harsh" words gave dissidents in the Soviet Union hope. It's hard to imagine a similar reaction among protesters in Iran.

This isn't just ancient history, however. Arab democracy activists in the Middle East (yes, they do exist) are worried that Obama's policy is counterproductive to the cause of freedom. FromThe Washington Post

"The frustration comes against a backdrop of deep-rooted skepticism among pro-democracy activists that U.S. policies under President Obama will help transform the region, despite his vow to engage the Muslim world in a highly publicized speech here last month. Some view Obama's response to Iran's protests, muted until Tuesday, as a harbinger of U.S. attitudes toward their own efforts to reform their political systems. The Egyptian government, they note, is a key American ally, and U.S. pressure on Egypt for reforms began subsiding in the last years of the Bush administration.

"When Obama does not take a stance, the very next day these oppressive regimes will regard this as a signal. This is a test for his government," said Ayman Nour, a noted Egyptian opposition politician who was recently released from jail. "If they can turn a blind eye to their enemy, they can turn a blind eye to any action here in Egypt."

Nevertheless, yours is a thoughtful post, and I'm always in search of good blogs, so I'll likely be back

The Law said...

I was going to make a similar point about the Iranian elections you so brilliantly penned here. I'm saddened that Obama had to give into political pressure and make a statement codeming Iran, and univiting them to the 4th for July party was a bit excessive.

Tom the Redhunter, I think your approach does not help the situation at all. See, the problem is, when we get into verbal pissing contests with our enemies, we do nothing but continue the perpetual cycle of distrust. The big beef the middle east has with us is our constant meddling in their affairs, trying impart of western culture on them against their will. Stepping aside and letting them fight their own battle is a small way of saying "hey, we hear you, and we respect you." Showing them an ounce of respect can go a long way towards building a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship

TRUTH 101 said...

I share your frustration with the scumbags that rule Iran, North Korea and formerly Iraq Tom. But i agree that harsh rhetoric will not help the situation of those in Iran who truly want our style of freedom. Any words from President Obama, or any other American in a leadership position will only be propaganda tools used against them.

And we all appreciated President Reagan's strength and will power. His is not quite the same situation as President Obama, or Predident Bush face in regards to Iran and North Korea. Gorbachev was a sane person. Kim Jung Il, Ahmadinijad and Khameini are in my admittedly unscientificly based opinion, nuts.

Carl Wicklander said...

He’s definitely not one of my favorite sources, but Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes wrote, “In fact, there are major differences [between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi]. Mousavi leads the forces of reform and democracy.”

The Washington Post has been regularly reporting stories purportedly with people in Iran (anonymous sources, of course) that Mousavi was the reform candidate who is for democracy and change, their Obama, if you will. The Post has not been questioning this view.

As for hard language backfiring, I would point to the massacres in Hungary in 1956. Eisenhower indicated that America would be on the side of the rebels but could offer no concrete support and there was bloodbath. The only reason to issue hard language is if there is reason to believe that the hard language will be enforced. Reagan succeeded with his Evil Empire speech because there was reason to believe he was not simply braying, plus the Soviet Union was entering its final stages, bankrupt at home and dying in the hills of Afghanistan. He talked tough to a regime that was weak at home and abroad. The Iranian regime is strong at home as evidenced by the crackdowns, but much weaker beyond its borders. There is nothing to gain by making a statement if there will be no physical help to accompany it. If they don’t believe we’re going to enforce our “tough talk,” then what incentive does any regime have, that wishes to retain its power, to lighten its grip? It may have been personally beneficial to Sharansky in his situation, but 2009 Iran is not the same as 1980s Soviet Union.

I do have to disagree on your assertion that Bush was right in his “Axis of Evil” speech. He lumped together three nations that had not threatened us and two of which, Iran and Iraq, were historical enemies of one another. It’s one thing to go after people who have attacked us, al Qaeda, it’s something different to insist that nations who had nothing to do with it are existential dangers to us as well. Making the statements in that speech widened the scope of war far beyond what was necessary.