June 20, 2009
'Freedom Fighters' and the American President
I frequently get asked how Ronald Reagan would react to certain situations. I've gotten those questions a lot lately given the penchant for central planning by the new team Americans elected in Washington.
But nowhere is there a Reagan lesson that needs heeded as desperately as in Iran right now. The desperation is more apparent daily as President Obama doesn't seem to recognize -- or doesn't know how to support -- the huge historical opportunity before his eyes, and quickly slipping through his fingers.
What would be Reagan's reaction to what's happening in Iran? That's a slam-dunk: He would have responded as he did to every cry for freedom suffocating under the last global scourge America battled -- Soviet communism. Wherever those resisting the despots resided and raised their voices, in Afghanistan, in Nicaragua, in Poland, Reagan was consistent, never missing the opportunity, always staying on theme. He called these people "freedom fighters."
He did so unequivocally, boldly, proudly, loudly, with the left often trashing him and undermining him, contesting whether this or that group met their criteria as legitimate "freedom" fighters. Reagan was undeterred. He recognized the historical imperative, what he called the March of Freedom. The freedom marchers needed America and its president to urge them on.
The total Reagan statements promoting these freedom fighters are literally uncountable. I know this well, as I collected them for research purposes. Reagan didn't simply step to the microphone to encourage these people at certain crisis moments; he called them out routinely, regularly, including in special, newly created ceremonies with names like Afghan Freedom Day, Solidarity Day, Captive Nations Week, and honoring things like "Observance of the Afghan New Year" or speaking at the annual Pulaski Day Banquet in New York City. In these statements, the president of the United States and unapologetic leader of the free world -- Reagan took that task to heart -- mercilessly blasted the tyrants with just about every name in the book.
Reagan didn't play footsies with dictators. He knew human nature. He knew evil. He knew who was wrong. He knew the dictators were bad regardless of whether we were nice. Not condemning them wouldn't make them behave better.
Let me give me just one example, which is most appropriate right now: Poland, the heart of the Soviet communist bloc. The crackdown ensuing in Iran has many similarities to what happened to the Solidarity movement in Poland after martial law was declared in December 1981.
After martial law, an unceasing stream of words and covert activity and aid (billions of dollars worth) -- done in coordination with Pope John Paul II's Vatican -- began flowing to the Solidarity underground from the Oval Office. The stream turned into a tidal wave, and Reagan didn't stop until the levee broke.
The words alone, which constituted a powerful source of moral support for Poland's freedom fighters, were so ubiquitous that the final index to the Reagan Presidential Documents -- the official collection of all presidential statements -- lists references to Solidarity or Poland on 216 pages, with multiple references on most pages. In these, Reagan stood as an unflagging championing of Solidarity, serving up stinging rebukes of Soviet or Polish communist government actions.
Reagan had geopolitical intentions in mind. He made a commitment to save and sustain the Polish freedom fighters as the wedge to splinter the Soviet bloc; they were the crack in the Iron Curtain, and Reagan wanted to be the crowbar. It turned out that bad news in Poland was good news for freedom: In Reagan's mind, the ugliness that was the crackdown afforded beautiful possibilities.
Today, those liberated freedom fighters, who now run Poland, which has been one of our best allies for two decades, freely speak of the importance of Reagan's support. To quote merely one, Jan Winiecki, a member of Solidarity, told me:
"It's very important for those underground to know they'll have support diplomatically if they're repressed. They knew they could count on Reagan and his administration for this rhetorical, moral, public support -- this political support. It raised their spirits that they could survive."
During that critical period, the Polish people referred to the American president as "Uncle Reagan." In 1983, the organization Paris Match conducted a poll of 600 Poles traveling to the West. When asked who was the "last hope" for Poland, these Poles placed Reagan behind only the Pope and Virgin Mary, and ahead of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.
As for Walesa, he now says, "We owe so much to Ronald Reagan. We Poles owe him freedom."
Alas, Iran today, at this very moment, stands at a critical juncture much like Poland in December 1981. In fact, the Obama White House would be well-served to go back and read how the Reagan White House reacted after martial law was declared on December 13, 1981.
Tragically, Obama is not doing what Reagan did. Aside from underground aid and activity, even mere public declarations of moral support would be significant. What's he afraid of? Could Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Islamist theocrats running this Jew-hating, nuke-craving, terrorist state be any worse? Though you wouldn't know it from Obama's sycophantic American press, Ahmadinejad has already made a fool of Barack Obama since the day the new president stepped into office.
What a genuine tragedy of history that the world has gotten its two most significant shake-ups in Iran under Jimmy Carter and now Barack Obama, and not under a Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. In the late 1970s, Carter had essentially given the green light to the would-be mullahs who wanted to overthrow the Shah. Now, Obama, through his silent complicity (as Ralph Peters has pointed out), has given a green light to the enshrined mullahs in their current crackdown against freedom.
This isn't a surprise. Obama doesn't have the necessary understanding -- in the heart, the gut, the soul. He doesn't perceive America -- to borrow from Reagan -- as "less of a place than an idea." He doesn't subscribe to Reagan's oft-invoked aphorism from Thomas Paine, that America has the power "to begin the world all over again." He doesn't see America as that lighthouse, that blowtorch of liberty, that Shining City on a Hill that serves as beacon for the oppressed peoples in captive nations around the world.
President George W. Bush, for all his faults, set this nation, and the wider world, on a course to literally transform human history by remaking the Middle East. The seeds for Bush's vision for a democratic peace, his openly expressed application of Reagan's March of Freedom, would be in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he spoke of a March of Freedom igniting in the Middle East, Iran was to be a vital outpost along that path.
And for all his sincere efforts, the left bludgeoned him, joyfully beating him into a pulp -- destroyed him. The boiling well of liberal hatred was so vicious, so toxic, gushing into a geyser, that it led to the election of the one presidential candidate who most starkly opposed this inspiring Wilsonian-Reaganesque worldview.
Alas, the left got the successor it wanted and deserves.
The American people let us down badly last November. They obliviously elected a president who truly doesn't seem to get it. We are now reaping what we've sown. What a shame, for us, for Iran, for the world. Freedom be damned.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books on Ronald Reagan include God and Ronald Reagan, The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand, and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.