Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1980, a very strange thing happened in one of the Soviet Union’s satellite states: workers in Poland, supposedly dutiful members of the “United Workers’ Party,” staged a spontaneous revolution. Led by Lech Walesa, they demanded the right to form an independent trade union. The communist regime, acting on orders from Moscow, declared martial law. Strikes broke out. A violent crackdown ensued.
Writing in his diary, Ronald Reagan grasped the significance of the moment: “We can’t let this revolution against communism fail without our offering a hand. We may never have an opportunity like this in our lifetime.”
The cadre of Republicans elected to Congress in the mid-term election understandably focused their campaigns on domestic concerns: federal spending, unemployment, the national debt. Yet they should take a cue from Reagan who, upon assuming office, also faced a dire economic downturn at home. Nevertheless, Reagan understood that the United States could not ignore national security threats or struggles for political freedom abroad.
Reagan quickly approved a top-secret directive authorizing a mix of diplomatic, economic, and covert methods to destabilize the Polish regime. He established a close personal relationship with the Polish Pope, John Paul II, whose influence among his native Poles provided the moral ballast for their democratic campaign. In December, two days before Christmas, Reagan addressed the American people about the crisis in Poland: “For a thousand years, Christmas has been celebrated in Poland, a land of deep religious faith, but this Christmas brings little joy to the courageous Polish people. They have been betrayed by their own government.” The president asked all Americans to light a candle in support of freedom in Poland.
After the fall of communism, Lech Walesa explained that without this support from the United States, the Solidarity movement probably would have been strangled in its crib.
Compare Reagan’s example of leadership and moral vision to that of President Barack Obama during the “Green Revolution” launched in the summer of 2009 in Iran. When tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to contest a rigged election, Team Obama instinctively sought to avoid even the appearance of “meddling” in Iranian affairs. Then the bloodletting began, as the theocratic thugs cracked down on peaceful protestors. If President Obama wrote anything in his diary that summer, it probably was along these lines: “America’s hands are soiled by its misdeeds in the Middle East, so whatever unpleasantness occurs on the streets of Tehran, we can’t be seen as taking sides.”
Think of it: Ordinary Iranians risk their lives for a principle enshrined in the American political order—government by consent—and the American president remains a spectator of events. No symbolic acts to identify with the democratic resistance. No hint of meaningful support for their cause. Over the last 16 months, the voluble Obama has failed to even articulate the nature of the struggle in Iran. Thus, even Slate magazine, a repository of Obama boosterism, admits that the people of Iran “feel abandoned not only by their own leaders but also by the United States.”
Here is where a new Congress can make a difference. The democracy movement in Iran represents not only the possibility of regime change, but the best hope for keeping the mullahs from acquiring nuclear weapons. Members of Congress do not direct U.S. foreign policy—that’s the role of the president. But Congress can influence foreign policy priorities, underwrite covert assistance, and help frame a national debate about the prospects of political change in Iran. It can identify and support emerging leaders. The vital thing is to move beyond merely criticizing human rights abuses and actively promote political reform.
Some believe that Iran’s democracy movement has come and gone; others say it was dead on arrival. Yet revolutions, like the people who lead them, have a way of intruding upon the regime du jour and shattering our assumptions about what’s possible in politics.
Conservatives claim to have elected a new crop of leaders who fancy themselves in this revolutionary mode. Let’s see if they mean it.