June 22, 2018
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Impotent Speech

Did President Reagan’s speech in West Berlin in 1987 in which he famously demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” help topple the Soviet Union? The speech is now seen as a signpost moment, and is credited with marking the beginning of the end of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. But behind the scenes before the speech, the president’s advisers recalled, the now-famous phrase was debated and weighed for possible diplomatic risks. Mr. Reagan had cultivated a relationship with Mr. Gorbachev and the demanding tone may have alienated him, they feared. Chief of Staff Howard Baker saw the phrase as extreme and unpresidential.

The speech probably had as much to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union as did President Kennedy’s equally famous and equally rousing “Ich bin ein Berliner” West Berlin speech 23 years earlier. That is, not much.

Inspiring words, especially when delivered by an outsider, rarely empower people to risk life and limb in resisting oppression. President Obama, known for his soaring rhetoric, could well have cast the Iranian protesters as “freedom fighters” (to borrow another Reagan phrase) during the recent protests. He could have denounced Iran’s leaders in the harshest of terms (renewing its membership in the Axis of Evil, perhaps) and threatened military action. Or he could have called for protesters to rise up against their government, as President George H.W. Bush did in the waning days of the Gulf War, urging the uprising of Iraqi Kurds (they were later slaughtered by Saddam Hussein).

Instead, Mr. Obama has wisely avoided such volatile, and ultimately impotent, language. Criticizing or threatening the Iranian regime would serve only to harden its leaders. It also would provide evidence the leaders would use to show Iranians that the U.S. has an agenda of meddling, which results in a boost in nationalism.

Though Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham are quick to criticize the president for not speaking out on the Iranian situation, the truth is that the U.S. hardly has clean hands when it comes to democracy. The CIA helped Great Britain unseat Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, and installed the pro-West shah, who was seen by Iranians as a ruthless dictator. When the U.S. provided sanctuary for the ailing shah in 1979, Iranians angry about the soft landing for the former leader helped prompt the seizure of American hostages.

As the leader of the democratic world, President Obama faces a conundrum as we witness Iranians yearning for a more open government. He must balance moral, diplomatic and strategic dictums to keep the possibility of constructive engagement open, while also remaining firm in supporting human rights and opposing military aggression. As with North Korea, a more reticent U.S. can result in neighboring nations stepping up to deal with a rogue state.

And as with the Soviet Union, if and when the people are ready for democracy, it will come. Tough talk serves only to anger those holding the power and pump up dissidents with false bravado, which is a recipe for crackdowns such as that at Tiananmen Square.

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