ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- "What are you Americans thinking?" asked the young woman in perfect, if slightly accented, English. She was wearing a name tag with "Marie" in both Cyrillic and Latin print and had greeted us pleasantly when we ducked out of the rain and into her store to buy postcards and mementos for our grandchildren. Her question about American "thinking" came in the midst of a conversation about how dramatically life in Russia had changed during her 27 brief years.
"What do you mean?" I replied.
"What are you Americans thinking about freedom?" Marie asked.
Somewhat perplexed, I answered: "We think individual liberty is wonderful. Why do you ask?"
Her response was a reproach: "Why isn't America supporting freedom for the people of Iran?"
My meandering rejoinder about "uncertainty" and "unique challenges" was unsatisfying to both of us -- a tawdry example of my inability to criticize our government while in a foreign country. A few hours after this encounter, our ship sailed into the Baltic Sea, past the nearly abandoned base at Kronshtadt, once a stronghold of the no-longer-mighty Soviet navy. Seeing its now-dilapidated structures and rusting hulls was a reminder that we have not always had a problem explaining what America stands for.
Twenty-two years ago this month, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate, in Berlin, boldly pointed to the barrier dividing the city, and declared: "There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe … Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
President Reagan's words were the knockout punch that buckled the knees of the Soviet empire. While some may think it was just a great line in a speech, Marie and tens of millions of other once-captive people know better. The challenge Mr. Reagan issued in the heart of Europe precipitated the end of a tyrannical system that had bullied, enslaved and murdered three generations of human beings for more than six decades. It wasn't just a sound bite. It was a consistent part of what Ronald Reagan said he wanted to achieve as president of the United States.
The "tear down this wall" line in President Reagan's 1987 speech in Berlin was the culmination of a clearly articulated course of action that began in the opening days of his administration. Despite near-unanimous opposition from the so-called mainstream media, foreign governments, elected Democrats, and even some in his own party, Mr. Reagan was always clear about what he believed to be best for our country: ending the threat of totalitarian communism. In May 1981, at the University of Notre Dame, just weeks after nearly being killed by an assassin's bullet, Mr. Reagan fearlessly predicted that in the years ahead, "The West will not contain communism; it will transcend communism."
Mr. Reagan's wholesale rejection of more than three decades of failed Cold War foreign policy was met with horror by the political elite, media pundits and striped-pants diplomats around the world. But people behind the Iron Curtain were listening -- and heartened. At home, the president set out to make his stated goal a reality.
He described the Soviet Union to be an "evil empire" and declared that the U.S. would build a 600-ship Navy and start work on a defense system to protect the American people from attack by Soviet ballistic missiles. In 1983, he sent the U.S. Marines, U.S. Army Rangers and the 82nd Airborne Division to Grenada to prevent American medical students on the island from being taken hostage.
Because his plain, unequivocal talk educated and inspired the American people, their representatives in Congress voted overwhelmingly to give him what was needed to get the job done. Allies and adversaries knew what the United States stood for and what to expect. Sadly, that's no longer the case, and that's why Marie asked her question in St. Petersburg.
In the aftermath of last week's fatally flawed elections in Iran, President Barack Obama responded by saying, "I can't state definitively one way or another what happened with respect to the election." That was hardly a resounding statement of support for freedom. No wonder Marie asked why America isn't supporting freedom for the people of Iran. The Iranian people undoubtedly are wondering the same thing. And Barack Obama's message to them is that "it's not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling."
It's a good thing for people in this part of the world that Ronald Reagan never thought of U.S. efforts to help people escape tyranny as "meddling."