An election launched the revolutions of 1989, and for those who doubt the ability of the demonstrators in Iran to bring about fundamental change in their country, the Polish vote of June, 4 1989 is worth remembering. That vote ratified Solidarity as the voice of the Polish people, and the communists across Europe were defeated from that day forward, even though the revolutions that would eventually shatter not only the totalitarian governments of the Warsaw Pact but also eventually destroy the Soviet Union would take two years to fully run their course.
Sometimes popular uprisings end in bloodbaths and repression, as at Tienamen Square. But sometimes as with Poland --and then Hungary and then East Germany and then Czechoslovakia etc-- the people cannot be denied their freedom, and totalitarians are overthrown.
Whether June 12 becomes a date as significant in Iranian history as June 4 is in Poland's remains to be seen, and the realists warn us that the possibility of regime change from the bottom up in Iran is remote at best.
But the degree of difficulty of the effort being made in Tehran and throughout the country should not deter Americans, and especially our government's leaders, from speaking clearly to the aspirations for genuine freedom on the part of the vast majority of Iranians. The Iranians marching and twittering and working in many other ways to topple the Khamenei theocracy are putting their lives on the line. The least we can do is pray for their success, publicly cheer them on, and to put as much rhetorical pressure on the forces of Ahmadinejad and his allies as it is possible to muster.
Most over 30 can recall the summer and fall of 1989 and the astonishment in the U.S. at the giant earthquake of freedom that shook the world then. Astonishment, yes, but no hesitation to cheer the change. In 1989, the mainstream left, right and center of American politics all knew that it was an unambiguously great and wonderful thing to see the totalitarians toppled. There were "realist" skeptics then, but no one expressed doubt as to what the best result would be.
This was perhaps because of the moral clarity that had been achieved over the four decades of the Cold War in all but the most ideological precincts of the American left. Americans knew that the regimes of eastern Europe were evil. We knew that their collapse would bring extraordinary benefits to the peoples they oppressed. And so we cheered every day's headlines.
Perhaps because of confusion about who they mullahs are and how they have waged war on the west for the past 30 years, there is much more hesitation now about the turmoil sweeping Iran than there ever was about the European upheavals of twenty years ago. Today there is no "consensus" in the U.S. about the illegitimacy of the theocracy that Khomeini built and that Khamenei has maintained. The American media just doesn't spend much time on the nature of the regime, or the viciousness with which it imprisons and tortures its enemies, or the degree to which it exports terror.
How could there be when institutions like Columbia University thought nothing of inviting Ahmadinejad to address its students? Moral clarity about a regime --and thus about its opponents-- cannot be achieved and maintained in am environment that condemns not the regime that is evil but the president who bluntly declared that regime to be so.
The paralysis that has gripped the Obama Administration as the massive display of human courage in Tehran and elsewhere has unfolded is thus not surprising even though it is deeply disappointing and dispiriting. How hard should it be for President Obama to declare unequivocally and with specificity that the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime should not murder its opponents, should not fire into crowds, should not sweep through the university campus and drag away suspected student leaders?
The cool detachment of President Obama about the events in Iran is a huge stain on the young presidency, but one that could still be erased if the president and his secretary of state move quickly to speak in clear statements about the rightness of the cause of the protestors, and the world's expectation that the regime will not use violence. The president should announce that violent repression of the protests will lead to the end of his outreach to the mullahs and to a guarantee of even greater isolation from the rest of the world.
That's what FDR and Truman did. It is what JFK and Reagan did. It is what W did again and again.
And it is what President Obama should do. Today and tomorrow and throughout the weeks ahead.