The Blog

No Democracy Agenda Here

A generation of Iranian reformers is being brushed aside by the leader of the free world.

12:00 AM, Jun 18, 2009 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

When Ronald Reagan addressed the communist crackdown on Solidarity, the Polish trade union, he avoided bellicose threats. He did not warn of military intervention. Yet he left no doubt about his political and moral sympathies. "The Polish nation, speaking through Solidarity, has provided one of the brightest, bravest moments of modern history," he said in December 1981. "The torch of liberty is hot. It warms those who hold it high. It burns those who try to extinguish it." As Solidarity leaders such as Lech Walesa have testified, Reagan's unambiguous support was crucial to the democratic opposition in Poland.

Yet the usually loquacious Obama has remained tongue-tied during this crisis in Iran--what surely represents one of its brightest and bravest moments in a generation. His reticence suggests two things about his administration. First, the Obama White House fails to grasp the enduring importance, and appeal, of America's democratic example. They are caught up in self-serving polling data about global anti-Americanism. Stop believing in America as the "last best hope" of democratic reformers and you stop lending them moral and political support.

Second, Obama's indifference toward Iran's protest movement reveals a foreign policy guided by raw political realism: The assumption that the character of regimes matters far less than their so-called national interests. Under this view, the goal is not regime change--not even through peaceful, democratic means--but rather smart diplomacy and soft power. Harvard University's Joseph Nye once gushed at the prospect of an Obama White House cleverly engaging the world: "It is difficult to think of any single act that would do more to restore America's soft power than the election of Obama to the presidency."

It is a bewildering abdication of soft power which refuses to peacefully extol America's democratic ideals. It is a crude and bizarre kind of realism that keeps mute while the democratic aspirations of millions are trampled by despotic rule. It is time Barack Obama tried explaining his "tough-minded" diplomacy to the young protestors on the streets of Tehran. They can be seen in the thousands, risking their careers, maybe their lives, to defy government bans and threats. They are waiting to hear from the American president.

Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at The King's College in New York City and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.