December 23, 2009
A Candle for Iran?By Paul Kengor
President Obama could learn a lesson from President Reagan on dealing with Iran.
Holocaust-denying despot Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. More than that, I focused on President Obama's reaction to the Iranian cry for freedom and justice.
President Obama's initial response was outrageous. It improved only after widespread criticism hit him from all sides. Still, even given the improvement in his rhetoric, our new president's treatment of the protests was a telling display of his tragic lack of recognition of what presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush termed the "March of Freedom."
I concluded those articles by emphasizing the need by Obama to employ the bully pulpit of the presidency to consistently encourage this vital groundswell of freedom in Iran. I noted that Reagan in particular had done precisely that in places like Poland in the 1980s -- with grand historical results. For Obama, this means not simply reacting to occasional incidents in Iran -- if and when they rarely present themselves -- but to be proactive, to be creative, to regularly call out the tyrants and encourage the dissidents. Obama must do this if he wants to push the freedom tide --and yes, if he wants to change the status quo in a dungeon like Iran, which for thirty years now has been the world's worst terrorist state.
If I may, I'd like to offer a specific example from the Reagan playbook. It happened 28 years ago -- Christmastime -- this week. You will not hear about in our public schools and liberal universities. That's a loss for liberals, too. They're missing a moving lesson that their guy -- President Obama -- could benefit from considerably.
The moment occurred in December 1981. That year, throughout the Evil Empire, "church-watchers" were on duty: sitting in chapels, taking notes on the "stupid people" entering to worship. The communist "war on religion" (Mikhail Gorbachev's apt description) was in full rot, as was the ugliness of communist repression generally.
The prospects for shining light upon that darkness seemed bleak. The Soviets were on the march, having added eleven proxy states as allies since 1974. The new man in Washington, President Ronald Reagan, was sure he could reverse Moscow's surge. He would jump-start the process in Poland, one of the most repressed Communist Bloc states -- but one where hope survived.
And just then, on December 13, 1981, the lights went out again. At midnight, as a soft snow fell lightly on Warsaw, a police raid commenced upon the headquarters of Lech Walesa's Solidarity labor union. The Polish communist government, consenting to orders from Moscow, declared martial law. Solidarity's freedom-fighters were shot or imprisoned. The flames of liberty were being snuffed out in this pivotal Eastern European nation.
But as Poles prayed for light to pierce the shadows, some remarkable things began to transpire. A week and a half later, the Polish ambassador, along with his wife, defected to the United States. Right away, they wanted to see Ronald Reagan. Reagan welcomed them into the Oval Office. They were overwhelmed. The ambassador's wife wept as Vice President George H. W. Bush put an arm around her shoulders to comfort her.
The ambassador then made an extraordinary request: "May I ask you a favor, Mr. President? Would you light a candle and put it in the window tonight for the people of Poland?" Ronald Reagan rose and walked to the second floor, lighted a candle, and put it in the White House window.
But Reagan wanted to do more than that. He saw a window of opportunity. So on December 23, with Christmas only two days away, speaking to all of America in a nationwide address, Ronald Reagan connected the spirit of the season with events in Poland: "For a thousand years," he told his fellow Americans (watch video here), "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 then took a remarkable liberty: He asked Americans that Christmas season to light a candle in support of freedom in Poland.
It was a significant gesture -- for Poland, for America, for a free world. Poles heard about it and took it to heart. They still talk about it today.
What does this have to do with President Obama and Iran? Everything. To wit: How about doing something similar for Iranians today? Why not light a candle as a sign of hope for Iran's freedom-fighters? If not a candle, then something -- some kind of overt public display.
Would such an action offend the Iranian leadership? Of course -- just as the light of day and light of truth repels a vampire.
The point, again, is for the American president to be proactive, to be creative, to be encouraging, to advance positive change in the world. He can make these simple but profound gestures even as he proceeds with his domestic agenda. Reagan did. Reagan -- quite apart from Obama's mindset -- passed his massive tax-reduction program in 1981.
Of course, there's an interesting juxtaposition there. Both domestically and in foreign policy, Reagan sought to remove power from the state and transfer it to the individual, whether through tax cuts for Americans or through undermining the communist totalitarianism shackling Poles. Obama is looking to empower the state domestically, while not undermining the theocratic totalitarianism shackling Iranians. It's a very instructive contrast.
And so, President Obama, I once again go back to my conclusion in my earlier articles: If you want to employ America as that light, as that beacon of freedom, then get going. Bring a flicker of hope, the light of liberty, to freedom's dungeon. Shine it into the terror-state of Iran.
Of course, proclaiming liberty to the captives means desiring to do so. A proclaimer must first be a believer. Like Reagan, and yes, like George W. Bush said too, you need to believe in the American ideal -- in the heart, in the soul, in the gut. You need to believe, as Ronald Reagan did, that America is as much an idea as a place.
Is Obama a believer? I said six months ago that only time will tell. So far, the story isn't promising.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His recent books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand.