On December 7, 1978, President Jimmy Carter was asked if he thought the Shah of Iran would survive the crisis that threatened to birth history’s first theocratic-terrorist state.
July 21, 2009
“I don’t know,” offered Carter. “I hope so. This is something that is in the hands of the people of Iran. We have never had any intention and don't have any intention of trying to intercede in the internal political affairs of Iran.”
This stunning statement ignited a political earthquake. It was a fatal vote of no confidence in the Shah from his longtime protector and benefactor. Iranians placed enormous stock in Uncle Sam’s statements, and the American president made it clear the Shah’s fate was no longer in America’s hands.
This was an Iranian “internal affair.” America should not meddle.
Only weeks after Carter’s statement, the Shah was finished, and Iran became a global nightmare.
I’ve thought of that moment often since the protests in Iran last month. I registered my own vote of no confidence: in President Barack Obama’s initial responses to the historic opportunity in Iran, which were eerily reminiscent of President Carter.
After first saying nothing, Obama did worse when he issued a jaw-dropping Carter-like appraisal on June 15: “[W]e respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran.”
To be fair, Obama later responded with stronger rhetoric, clearly the result of sharp criticism from all sides. It was telling when even CNN, on the morning of June 22, led with a spot-on swipe at Obama by Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN), who trenchantly observed that when President Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate, he didn’t say, “Mr. Gorbachev, this wall is none of our business.”
Amid such negative reaction, two new polls conducted during the Iran protests (Gallup and Rasmussen) showed notable declines in Obama’s approval rating. The House of Representatives impressively passed a resolution by 405 to 1 supporting Iran’s freedom fighters. The pressure on the American president—with the world begging him to stand for American principles—mounted dramatically as footage rolled from Iran, including the cold-blooded street execution of the woman known as “Neda.”
Suddenly, Obama ratcheted up his response. The man who first stood silent, and then stood aside Italy’s leader on June 15 and muttered his “respect [for] Iranian sovereignty,” or who had stood aside South Korea’s leader on June 16 and expressed his fears of American “meddling,” had transformed into a lion.
By June 26, an intrepid Obama stood stoically aside Germany’s leader and condemned the mullahs’ “outrageous” “brutality” and “ruthlessness” and “violence,” against the “extraordinary bravery and extraordinary courage” of the “Iranian people.”
Obama had made quite a change, from what Ralph Peters aptly described as “silent complicity” (June 18) to, alas, insisting he was “appalled and outraged” at the Iranian leadership (June 23).
So, kudos to President Obama for reevaluating, for whatever reason or motivation, and adopting an American approach to this cry for liberty. We must give credit where credit is due.
That said, Obama’s handling of the crisis reveals serious long-term concerns going forward:
First and foremost, Obama didn’t frame his response in any sort of understanding of the American ideal or concept of a March of Freedom that was invoked by George W. Bush. Rather than a worldview anchored in the American Founders’ vision, Obama echoed an empty U.N.-speak about the “desires of the international community” (June 26). He rebuked Iran in the bland language of a post-modern globalist rather than the inheritor of the torch of freedom carried from Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson to the presidents who won the 20th century. It is America, not the United Nations and European Union, that has been the force for freedom.
In short, I fear Obama still doesn’t get it.
Second, as noted, Obama reacted primarily to criticism of his depressingly tepid support of the Iranian people; he responded to politics more than principle. While that’s better than nothing, it’s merely short-term improvement, even window-dressing, and does nothing for the long haul. Indeed, tapping freedom’s potential in Iran is a long-term prospect, as Ronald Reagan did with Poland, or as George W. Bush has hopefully achieved in Iraq.
Think about this: In Poland, martial law was declared in December 1981. Reagan followed with a sustained eight-year effort, until freedom was unleashed in Poland in June 1989—the precursor to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Likewise, increasing stability in Iraq in 2009 comes only after George W. Bush’s obviously intense undertaking beginning in 2002.
If Obama cares about advancing liberty in Iran, about carrying the March of Freedom through the Middle East, then he will follow his improved rhetoric with a concerted commitment to help produce the fruits of liberty.
I’m skeptical. We need a president who gets this in the gut, who doesn’t learn these things on the job (when it’s usually too late), and who doesn’t—like Jimmy Carter—make disastrous mistake after mistake. We need a leader who understands what it means to lead the free world.
Editor’s note: A longer version of this article first appeared in American Thinker.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.