In December 1989, I stopped in Moscow, on my way to Estonia as part of the first group from the West to hold a conference on free markets in the Soviet Union. A colleague and I met with scholars and others who we thought would be sympathetic to our mission. Not infrequently we were told that they had heard and, we gathered, been inspired by the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher about the nature of their regime, an evil empire, and what should be done: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
The commitment of those leaders in words and in deeds to freedom throughout the world helped to rid America of the communist threat as well as to free hundreds of millions of oppressed people from the scourge of that ideology.
When Iranian protesters took to the streets in opposition to the theocratic tyrants who rule their country, the best President Obama could muster at first was, “It would be unproductive, given the history of U.S.-Iran relations, for us to be seen to be meddling.”
“It would be unproductive, given the history of U.S.-Iran relations, for us to be seen to be meddling.” -President Obama
At a bizarre press conference a week later, Obama said we must “ bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place.” But he still stressed, “I have made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not interfering in Iran's affairs.”
This continual “On the one hand, on the other hand” approach no doubt stems from Obama’s commitment to a new approach to the most brutal dictatorships on the planet: engagement by holding out a friendly hand, perhaps in the hopes that they will grasp it, break into a chorus of “Kumbaya,” and give up their mischievous ways as they succumb to the Obama charm.
Right-thinking Americans are disgusted by the moral poverty of this president’s approach, a combination of kowtowing to his left-wing supporters, and his plain naiveté about the ways of the world.
So what principles should guide American foreign policy, especially in this time of great danger and opportunity?
The founding purpose of the U.S. government is to protect Americans’ rights to life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness from all enemies, foreign and domestic, leaving us otherwise free to run our own lives. The purpose is not to expend American blood and treasure when our security is not threatened in altruistic attempts to right every wrong in the world.
But several other facts should inform America’s foreign policy in general and our approach to Iran in particular.
To begin with, when governments and the cultures they reflect are based on the same universal values of individualism on which the United States was founded, those governments and the peoples of those countries likely will not threaten us. Probably, they will be favorably disposed toward us and perhaps will even be our allies.
Democracy, the Holy Grail of so many neo-conservatives, is not a top-end value in itself. Rather, democratic procedures along with limited, constitutional government, checks on political power, and the rule of law all protect our fundamental freedoms from tyranny either by government itself or by a majority seeking to take the freedoms of a minority.
But if the values of a society are based on collectivism, tribalism, or any of the many forms of irrational ideologies, then democratic procedures can simply bring tyrants to power—witness Hamas and Hezbollah in Gaza. Further, it is extremely difficult to change an entire culture. Thus it is a quixotic and likely failed quest for the U.S. government to seek to protect the security of Americans by pushing many of the countries in the Middle East to adopt democratic procedures, since those same countries have the most backward and irrational Islamic and tribalist cultures on the planet.
But in the case of Iran, the people in the streets are not simply protesting an obviously rigged election between four presidential candidates pre-approved by the ruling Mullahs out of hundreds who wanted to run for office. Rather, they long for a more open society in which they can live their own lives as they choose. They long for the values on which America was founded.
As such, this situation might not justify American military intervention, if that’s how one defines “meddling.” But it absolutely necessitates that American leaders, especially President Obama, articulate as clearly as possible those universal values of individual liberty.
Iranian protestors long for a more open society in which they can live their own lives as they choose.
Yes, in this way we should loudly and proudly “meddle” in the affairs of Iran because we are doing so to back the aspirations of freedom-seeking people against brutal tyrants. Those people protesting and dying in the street of Tehran are carrying the battle. But just as two decades ago the words of Reagan and Thatcher provided the people behind the Iron Curtain with the knowledge that they were not alone and the hope that they too could be free, so Obama’s pronouncements should be clear and inspiring, and to hell with the “feelings” of the religious fanatics that rule that country.
But the rhetoric of a president who so many mistakenly regard as a great orator is revealed today as vapid and shameful.
In the case of Iran there’s a second glaring factor that Obama ignores in his “appealing to both sides” rhetoric. The government of Iran is the greatest threat to American security today. Its rulers are the most irrational, death-worshipping religious fanatics. It is the world’s major exporter and bankroller of Islamic terrorism and fanaticism. The containment and destruction of that regime would be as significant to American security today as was the destruction of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in times past. The only question is, “What is the most effective way of doing so?”
No, we don’t want to repeat the mistakes of Iraq. Military action might not be wise at this point or even necessary. For America has been handed a gift by the brave Iranian people in the streets. They are threatening that regime. Obama might argue that if we show too much support for the protectors, if we “meddle,” then the Mullahs as well as the protesters will unite in their hate for America. But what unites the protestors now against the regime is their commitment, however imperfect, to the values for which America at its best stands; Obama cannot articulate those values the way Reagan and Thatcher did because he does not share them.
We Americans should be united today proudly in support for the brave freedom fighters in Iran and shocked by what Obama’s morally relativistic rhetoric reveals about his hollow moral core.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.