Liberty and the Tehran Spring

During the Cold War, foreign policy issues were framed in binary terms: the U.S. versus the Soviet Union. This was the great struggle of the last half of the 20th century, and the question was: Which side are you on? Today, however, the context is quite different. We live, or so we’re told, in an increasingly multipolar world, one in which a lone superpower – the U.S. – confronts a wide range of challenges, the most serious of which are internal.

There has been an attempt, after 9/11, to refit the old Cold War paradigm into a new package, with radical Islamism taking the place of international communism, yet this has never been very convincing. Communism was a universalist creed, while the Islamists appeal only to those who are already devotees to one degree or another.

Yet people hold on to old perspectives even as the basis for them slips away. The Cold War had such a hold on our political consciousness for so long that it left its imprint rather deeply embedded – and not only on the Cold Warriors, but also on their opponents. Just as the old-style anti-Communist conservatives of the past simply drew on their old perspectives to forge a view of radical Islamism as an international conspiracy designed to subjugate the Western world in the chains of "dhimmitude," so their ideological opposite numbers – most but not all on the Left – continued to think in the same old way, long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet empire.

An example of the latter began to rear its head during the Kosovo war, when some opponents of U.S. intervention defended Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian strongman, even against the majority of his own people. When the Milosevic crowd falsified election results and the opposition parties mounted mass protests, these anti-interventionists branded the whole anti-Milosevic movement a CIA-inspired plot to bring the former Yugoslavia into the American empire. Some, no doubt, were ideologically sympathetic to Slobo’s thuggish version of state socialism: others, although they didn’t like the thuggery, nonetheless refrained from criticizing Milosevic or siding with the democratic opposition for fear of giving aid and comfort to U.S. imperialism.

On the other hand, this writer took a more nuanced position. Yes, U.S. intervention in the former Yugoslavia was a Bad Thing, and, yes, the U.S. was involved in the movement to bring down the Serbian strongman, but, no, that didn’t mean the sizable constituency of anti-Milosevic Serbians were "tools of U.S. imperialism," as the more strident leftist types characterized them. They had a legitimate beef with the regime, and they wanted their freedom. Leftist and other apologists for Milosevic, however, didn’t see it that way. They took a reflexively anti-U.S. position: if the U.S. government was on one side of the barricades, they were going to be on the other side.

Yet reality evades the neat categories laid out by ideologues of all stripes. The fact was that Milosevic was leading his nation to ruin, and millions of Serbs rose up and demanded his ouster. Were they all "fifth columnists," as one particularly nutty Milosevic supporter put it, siding with those who had bombed their country and ripped Kosovo from Yugoslavia’s bleeding carcass? While there were no doubt a cadre of dedicated U.S. agents, they could wield no real influence unless the great mass of people decided to act on genuine grievances. Yet facts can barely penetrate the ideological armor of such people, and they brushed Milosevic’s repressive actions aside as if they were merely a bothersome fly – easy to do, by the way, if you’re sitting a couple of thousand miles away tapping on your computer keyboard.

I had a number of exchanges with these writers, including one of our own columnists, the brilliant George Szamuely, who, quite aside from opposing U.S. intervention abroad, valorized each and every tinpot dictator who stood up to Washington, especially Milosevic. The mass of demonstrators demanding that Milosevic step down and supporting Vojislav Kostunica were disdained by Szamuely as "traitors," and their American defenders were derided as "parrots." In response, I wrote:

"News reports showed photos of ‘at least 200,000’ people jamming the streets of Belgrade – were they all Madeleine Albright and Robin Cook replicants? That is precisely the line taken by the shrinking circle of neo-communists who make up Milosevic’s Praetorian Guard and their minuscule far-left cheering section around the world: Kostunica and the 52 percent-plus who voted for him are all ‘traitors’ who have lined their pockets with Western dollars and sold out to the CIA-NED-George Soros Conspiracy. This ‘analysis’ involves a kind of self-induced blindness, what Orwell called ‘doublethink,’ a mental technique that involves blanking out whatever facts contradict dogma: in this case, what Szamuely is blanking out is the sight of over 200,000 exuberant Serbs celebrating their rightful victory. He just doesn’t see it. Unfortunately for him, the rest of us do – and this is the thankless task of the propagandist, who is forced to make himself look more than a little foolish, on occasion, in the interests of upholding the party line."

This is precisely how a small but vocal number of U.S. anti-interventionists are reacting to the sight of hundreds of thousands of Iranians putting their lives on the line for a greater measure of liberty. If Iran is being threatened by the U.S. government, then the regime must be unconditionally defended, no matter how bloody the repression. It is Szamuely redux, and it is wrong, both factually and morally.

It is wrong factually because U.S. government aid does not necessarily mean U.S. government control: the Americans think they can buy anyone and everyone, from Central Europe to Afghanistan, but these people are taking their money and laughing at the gullible Yankees all the way to the bank.

More importantly, these analysts are assuming a degree of competence on the part of the U.S. government that is simply not realistic: they posit a tight network of Washington-controlled drones programmed to do the CIA’s bidding, but it doesn’t work out that way. Instead, the U.S. throws money and resources at influencing public opinion in far distant lands of which our "national security" bureaucrats know little and care even less. Their efforts, more often than not, do more harm to the U.S. cause than good. Why assume our government is any better at exporting democracy than it is at delivering the mail or running the auto industry? U.S. "democracy promotion" abroad is nothing but a joke, albeit an expensive one.

The reflexive response against the Iranian "spring" on the part of people like Flynt and Hillary Leverett, Paul Craig Roberts, and others is representative of the "old thinking," the Cold War paradigm that forced everyone into one of two camps. Like the two-party system in the U.S., this greatly restricted the range of permissible thought, particularly among the elites, and subjected deviationists from either side to charges of being a "fifth column." All critics of America’s aggressive foreign policy were either "Communists" or else "fellow-travelers." And, on the other side, all critics of Soviet repression were "objectively" on the side of U.S. imperialism, if not bought-and-paid-for CIA agents.

Some on the Left tried to imagine the possibility of what they called a "Third Camp," a hope given expression in the slogan "Neither Washington nor Moscow," but this fell apart under the tremendous pressure of events, and most of the Third Campists ended up as apologists for U.S. aggression. Max Shachtman, the dissident Trotskyist, is the exemplar of this tendency. Shachtman started out by saying that he would grow hair on the palms of his hands sooner than he’d ever support U.S. imperialism, and he wound up supporting the Vietnam War and cheering on the Bay of Pigs invasion. His intellectual legatees are today’s neoconservatives.

Yet now that the pressure to choose sides in a global Great Game is gone – now that the universalist credo of the West has come to represent modernity itself, and has no serious ideological competitor – the old thought patterns refuse to give way. Still, we must take a side: critics of the Americans’ crazed response to 9/11 were accused by, for example, Andrew Sullivan of being sympathetic to Osama bin Laden. George W. Bush gave the most succinct, unforgiving expression of the post-9/11 political orthodoxy: you are "either with us, or with the terrorists." No Third Camp there.

Yet human beings have a way of defying these categorical imperatives and going their own ways – which is precisely what happened in Serbia, where a democratic yet hardly pro-NATO government took power in the wake of Milosevic’s fall. In Iran today something quite similar is happening. Encircled by the U.S. military – in Iraq and further East – Iran is undergoing an internal convulsion that has little if anything to do with the U.S. Rather than a CIA-engineered attempt at regime-change, what is occurring is a split in the Iranian political elite. What’s more, the dissident forces are being led by a man whose anti-U.S. credentials, so to speak, are impeccable. After all, Mir Hossein Mousavi, as CQ‘s Jeff Stein points out, "may yet turn out to be the avatar of Iranian democracy, but three decades ago Mir-Hossein Mousavi was waging a terrorist war on the United States that included bloody attacks on the U.S. embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Beirut. Mousavi, prime minister for most of the 1980s, personally selected his point man for the Beirut terror campaign, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-pur, and dispatched him to Damascus as Iran’s ambassador, according to former CIA and military officials."

Those hundreds of thousands who filled the streets of Tehran would in all likelihood oppose Iran dropping its nuclear energy program and appeasing the West just as vehemently as they oppose the gruesome depredations of their own government.

In the post-Cold War world there is room for a Third Camp, and a Fourth: indeed, they are popping up all over. It’s too bad some people are wearing such thick ideological blinders that they can’t see what is right in front of their noses.

The U.S. government has long ago ceased to represent the forces of freedom in the world, but that doesn’t mean the glorious history of this country as the avatar of freedom is or can be erased. The glow of what was once a light unto the world lingers yet, ironically stronger the further away it is geographically and temporally. To those of us who seek to relight the torch of freedom in the U.S., it is imperative that we balance the legitimate impulse on the part of foreign peoples to gain a greater measure of freedom with the imperatives of opposing U.S. government intervention.

And, yes, I do mean rhetorical as well as military and financial intervention, especially in the case of the Iranian events. Presidential palavering does nothing to concretely aid the Iranians being beaten in the streets, and, as we have seen, it has been just a cover for Obama to back away from his campaign promises to negotiate in a meaningful way with Tehran.

People all over the world are drawn to the U.S. as "a shining city on a hill," as Ronald Reagan so eloquently put it – as a moth to a flame. For that one can hardly blame them. U.S. libertarians, too are drawn to this sort of imagery, even if what we see today are just the ruins of a once magnificent metropolis.

Yet the U.S. government today is the greatest obstacle to the worldwide freedom movement, not its ally: any groups or media outlets it controls are merely extensions of U.S. foreign policy, subject to its machinations and sudden policy reversals, and ultimately fated to betray the cause of human liberty. We do that cause no favors by supporting Washington in its efforts, yet by disdaining the genuine impulse of peoples everywhere to be free, we commit a moral crime.

One wonders what sort of evidence would convince the Iranian regime’s anti-interventionist defenders that the Ahmadinejad camp engaged in massive election fraud. One also wonders why they have failed to take full advantage of the Iranian surge in the context of the debate over U.S. policy options regarding Iran. After all, before we were treated to a portrayal of Iranian society as essentially totalitarian, where fanatic mullahs decreed the death penalty for ordinary crimes and no variety of opinion existed. Yet the Tehran spring, however brief, has proven otherwise: Iran is not an ideological and political monolith, and the government is itself divided into various wings, reformist and hard-line, contending for power. Opponents of diplomatic engagement with Tehran have claimed that there is no one to talk to, but if Mousavi and his followers win out, or even fight the hard-liners to a standstill, what will they say, then?

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].