By Bruce S. Thornton
Remember when the liberal punditariat sneered at George Bush for putting Iran in the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address? Whole legions of sophisticated, nuanced thinkers rushed to explain the crudity of Bush’s thinking, not to mention his indulgence of dangerous religious ideas like “good” and “evil.” Iran is not a Hitlerian totalitarian state, they sniffed, and elections are held there, offering some level of democracy.
Typical of such thinking is a column not long ago by the New York Times’ Roger Cohen, in which this nuanced thinker wrote: “Totalitarian regimes require the complete subservience of the individual to the state and tolerate only one party to which all institutions are subordinated. Iran is an un-free society with a keen, intermittently brutal apparatus of repression, but it's far from meeting these criteria. Significant margins of liberty, even democracy, exist. Anything but mad, the mullahs have proved malleable. Most of Iran's population is under 30; it's an Internet-connected generation. Access to satellite television is widespread. The BBC's new Farsi service is all the rage. . . . The June presidential election pitting the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, against Mohammad Khatami (a former president who once spoke in a synagogue) will be a genuine contest as compared to the charades that pass for elections in many Arab states. No fire has burned down the Majlis, or parliament.”
I wonder what the people in the streets of Tehran would think about this “genuine contest,” or whether they appreciate Cohen’s sophistries like “un-free” and “intermittently brutal” and “margins of liberty” and “complete subservience to the state.” What percentage of a citizen’s freedom has to be eliminated before a regime will meet Cohen’s criteria for “complete subservience”? Let’s see, all candidates for office have to be approved in advance by the mullahs, and even then the election is blatantly stolen, after which protesters are killed and beaten, opposition leaders and their families arrested, the media silenced and internet interdicted, the “Supreme Leader” (sic!) Ayatollah Khamenei publicly threatens violence against his own citizens, gangs of paramilitary thugs rampage through Tehran like storm troopers ––looks pretty totalitarian to me, though time will tell whether it ultimately lasts or not.
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The real issue, however, is not Cohen’s verbal quibbles, but how should the United States respond to the events in Iran. Cohen’s article was really carrying water for Obama’s new policy of “engaging” the “malleable” mullahs in order to keep them from acquiring nuclear weapons, financing terrorists, and being in general a disruptive force in the Middle East. How does that policy look now? What can Obama offer a regime willing to rig an election and kill its own citizens, that will make them give up the enormous regional prestige and power nuclear weapons would bestow?
All this “engagement” talk sounds eerily like the British in the Thirties, with their “shuttle diplomacy,” conferences, commissions of inquiry, soothing diplomatic assurances to Germany, and responses to Hitler’s serial violations of the Versailles Treaty carefully worded so as not to alienate or anger the Fuhrer, all of which were exploited by Hitler to pursue his aggression. Of course, Iran is not Germany in the Thirties, but the lesson to be learned from the failure to appease a regime bent on aggression still holds: an aggressor motivated by passionate ideology will be stopped only by force or a credible threat of force.
Nor will the Iranian aggressors care a bit if the President carefully nuances his verbal response to their violence and tyranny. We did that all through the Cold War, to the anguish of millions of oppressed Russians and Eastern Europeans, who desperately wanted the West to call a totalitarian spade a spade, and who rejoiced when Ronald Reagan finally said the obvious in the “evil empire” speech equally derided by sophisticated liberal thinkers. Nor do the arguments in favor of verbal restraint hold up––for example, that we’ll discredit the protestors because they’ll be characterized as agents of the Great Satan and thus more easily crushed. Well, they’re already being called British and American stooges, and they’re already being brutally crushed. Meanwhile, what we used to call the “leader of the free world” carefully parses his words while brave men and women die in the streets of Tehran.
Whatever the President says, the regime in Iran is going to hold on tightly to power and pursue its acquisition of nuclear weapons in order to maintain its pelf and privilege and to pursue its apocalyptic brand of Shi’ism. Nor will they give up until a critical mass of Iranians make them give up. But the President’s words at this moment, assuming they are backed up with subsequent meaningful action, can encourage such Iranians and tell the regime and the world where the United States stands––on the side of freedom and the dignity of man.