Conservatives' Cold War Approach to Iran

President Barack Obama has come under increasing criticism from conservatives for what they see as his insufficient rhetorical support for the Iranians demonstrating for reform. As usual, playing a lead role in conservative arguments is the mighty Communist-killer Ronald Reagan.

On Tuesday, Rep. Mike Pence, a Republican from Indiana, invoked the sainted former president while introducing a House resolution "expressing concerns about the Iranian presidential election and condemning the violence against demonstrators." Pence insisted that "we cannot stand idly by … at a time when hundreds of thousands of Iranians are risking their lives to stand up for free elections and democracy," and quoted from Reagan's first Inaugural Address: "No arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women."

Holding forth on Fox News, Charles Krauthammer, one of Washington's chief keepers of the Reagan flame, grumbled that Obama wasn’t "standing, as Reagan did, in the Polish uprising of 1980, and say[ing] we stand with the people in the street who believe in democracy. … It is a disgrace that the United States is not stating it as simply and honestly as that." As if anyone in Iran were really unclear as to where the United States stood on the question, especially given the State Department's intervention to keep Twitter online during the protests.

In an interview with Radio Free America, Sen. John McCain responded to fellow Republican Sen. Richard Lugar's suggestion that President Obama shouldn't get involved in the disputed election by saying, "I'm sure that this was the same comment that was made when President Reagan went to Berlin and said, 'Take down this wall. [sic]' I've seen this movie before. America stands for freedom, for democracy."

Indeed, we've all seen this movie before. It's the one where conservatives deploy a potted history of the Cold War -- in which Reagan spoke and the walls came tumbling down -- to cast international politics as a zero-sum contest between good and evil, and to cow progressives into a more aggressive rhetorical posture toward America's adversary of the moment. It is usually hidden under the guise of "solidarity with captive peoples" and absent any genuine consideration of the practical effects on the peoples concerned.

Needless to say, this comic book version of history leaves out an enormous amount. What's missing is not only U.S. Cold War policy before Reagan (in which Americans of both parties moved in fits and starts to both contain and engage the Soviet Union) but also some of the more inconvenient aspects of Reagan's own presidency -- such as his silence over U.S. ally Saddam Hussein's various acts of mass murder, his conversion to the cause of arms control and outreach to Gorbachev (for which he was condemned by neoconservatives as a "traitor to anti-Communism"), and, of course, his trading of arms to Iran and diversion of the proceeds to support the Nicaraguan Contras.

Most unfortunately, however, the myth of Reagan's Cold War victory essentially writes off the involvement of the peoples in question in securing their own freedom. Typifying this tendency, in a recent Politico profile, Krauthammer scoffed at the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s as "hysteria," which is the orthodox view among Reaganites.

The views of actual Communist dissidents, however, tell a different story. Such leaders as Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel and Poland's Adam Michnik, among others, have acknowledged that the cultural and intellectual exchanges that grew out of the anti-nuclear movement were important for the training and morale of their organizations and for preparing them for peaceful transitions of power after the Soviet Union collapsed. In a 1995 article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, historian Mary Kaldor noted that the peace movement of the 1980s "was unprecedented in scale and in its transnational character," and in the way it made explicit links between peace, democracy, and human rights "[in seeking] links with individual dissidents and groups in Eastern Europe."

Similarly forgotten is the importance of the 1975 Helsinki Accords -- specifically the commitment to human rights contained in the final agreement -- in giving rise to important dissident organizations such as Czechoslovakia's Charter 77, to which Havel was a prominent signatory, which played a key role in bringing Czech Communism down. At the time, conservatives condemned the accords, which gave the Soviet Union security guarantees in return for statements in support of human rights, as "appeasement." Sound familiar?

This disregard for history is in keeping with conservatives' current disregard for the consequences that American grandstanding could have for people on the ground in Iran. The left is certainly not immune to calls to "action" for its own sake, but it's hard not to be stunned by Mike Pence blithely insisting to CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "I don't really care how [U.S. meddling] is seen by the tyrants in Tehran. … The cause of America is freedom." As Iran analyst Mehdi Khalaji noted in a recent Washington Post op-ed, a "velvet revolution" of the sort that took place in Eastern Europe is "[Iranian Supreme Leader] Khamenei's nightmare." Iran's hardliners have obsessively studied the collapse of the Soviet Union and have worked to harden their regime against precisely the sort of influence that American conservatives now imagine they can exercise with a few speeches.

Fortunately, President Obama seems to be aware of this and has skillfully walked a line in his statements, supporting the human and political rights of the demonstrators while not endorsing any particular electoral outcome. He understands, as his detractors do not, that knowing when not to act is as strategically important as knowing when to do so and that the most productive thing the United States can do for Iranian human rights and democracy at the moment is to keep itself, to the extent possible, out of the equation.