Chest-Thumping Interventionists

by , June 22, 2009

It is difficult to exaggerate the perniciousness and childishness of those who, as the Iranian situation unfolds, are practicing what Peggy Noonan in her Wall Street Journal column Friday called "Aggressive Political Solipsism at work: Always exploit events to show you love freedom more than the other guy, always make someone else’s delicate drama your excuse for a thumping curtain speech." Surely the sympathy of most Americans is firmly on the side of the protesters on the streets in Iran. But it doesn’t make Barack Obama a coward, appeaser, or friend of dictatorship that he hasn’t yet yelled from Mt. Everest that the U.S. government endorses the dissidents and scorns any regime that includes the dread Ahmadinejad.

Those who have been agitating for the U.S. government to do so – Obama’s reminder that the world is watching is apparently merely another sign of terminal lily-liveredness – are more interested in fawning and preening as bold freedom fighters (from the comfort of their easy chairs, clad in their pajamas) and name-calling domestic political opponents than in anything that might actually help to increase the freedom or dignity of actual people living in Iran. Indeed, such a declaration would more likely lead to harm than help for the brave souls filling city streets. You could think of them as peacocks spreading their colorful tails to display the bright colors, or adolescent boys boasting "my freedom penis is bigger than yours."

Some of the cleverer among them may purposely be trying to get a significant number of Iranians martyred by the regime, if they calculate that’s what will facilitate regime-change. More likely, most of the Fox-type personalities are simply heedless and self-important.

To be sure, it is easy to develop an "it’s all about us" attitude toward events in other parts of the world. Former Bushie Pentagon (and former Reagan and Bush I) official and neocon extraordinaire Paul Wolfowitz encourages this tack by comparing Iran to the 1986 revolt in the Philippines that eventually led to Marcos leaving and the struggles that ended the Soviet empire, implying without actually claiming that it was the forceful verbal intervention of the American president that made all the difference, and could make the difference in the Iranian outcome. "In such a situation, the United States does not have a ‘no comment’ option," Wolfowitz writes. "Coming from America, silence itself is a comment – a comment in support of those holding power and against those protesting the status quo."

Never mind that a comment from the U.S. president will immediately grant legitimacy to claims by regime spokesmen that the uprising is really the work of the United States and all those hundreds of thousands out in the streets are simply Yankee puppets. With the president offering carefully parsed comments reflecting uncertainty about the outcome, those claims look ridiculous. Taking sides validates the regime’s paranoia.

For an article for the Orange County Register I have been talking with representatives of the Iranian opposition in exile, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, officially and inaccurately designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, and others. All of them welcome the moral support of the American people, which they are getting. But they also urge the U.S. government not to intervene, even verbally. This is our fight, our country, is the attitude. Making it American gives a propaganda advantage to the regime, which holds most of the logistical cards anyway.

Maybe. But the future is unknown no matter how the Iranian situation plays itself out. To imagine that a simple word or two from the president of the United States will shift the balance of an entire region is not only the essence of solipsism and "it’s all about us," but a statement of devotion to the cult of the presidency, the notion that one man in one country is potentially either savior or consignor to the depths of tyranny.

Of course, Wolfowitz, Charles Krauthammer, and others have spent most of their careers being wrong (about Iraq and much else). They have been encouraging the United States to think of itself as the world-bestriding empire, the difference-maker everywhere, the avatar of truth and justice in a benighted but potentially salvageable world – salvageable through the proper application of military power, the very obverse of devotion to genuine freedom, the confession that one doesn’t really believe other countries can achieve what we in our wisdom desire for them without a whiff of the grape, a reminder of who is really the master. The obsequious concern about freedom in other lands is more likely a desire that the American empire continue to expand its shaky dominion.

The possible parallel few want to remember (understanding that there are no precise parallels, as even Wolfowitz acknowledges) is Hungary in 1956. During that uprising Americans encouraged the Hungarians, but when the crackdown came there was no tangible American help because it would have been logistically nigh-impossible to provide it. It is not impossible to imagine tangible U.S. assistance, perhaps in the form of money, equipment, or even some covert activity, to the people in the streets of Iran, but it is difficult. Would the U.S. be prepared to assist overtly with enough resources to topple an Iranian regime that has its supporters as well as detractors in the country? Or would a few encouraging words from a U.S. president amount to a false promise that would likely get a bunch of decent people killed while actually bolstering the strength of the regime?

Wolfowitz and Krauthammer are only two of the more articulate proponents of the "it’s all about us" position on Iranian developments. You can find them in full-throated bellowing mode on Fox News, at National Review online, and elsewhere in the various corners of the conservative – and sometimes moderate or liberal – blogosphere.

Those who really want more freedom in the world are best advised to focus their efforts on the only government that poses a direct danger to their freedom, the government that rules in their own country. If that government is sufficiently tamed, or if one is in possession of valuable information or particular friends or acquaintances that give them a leg up on promoting freedom in other countries, there’s nothing wrong with that. But real freedom cannot be imposed from the outside. Those with the interests of Iranians sick of the mullahs truly at heart will understand that this is their country, their struggle, their set of goals, their country to take back.

As an individual American I’m not reluctant to say that my sympathies are fully with the demonstrators in the streets. As someone who really desires that Iranians – and everyone else, including Americans – enjoy more freedom in the future, I would just as soon not have the U.S. government intervening too actively in the conflict.

Read more by Alan Bock