There is a debate breaking out in this country over President Obama’s extremely cautious and passive statements about what is unfolding in Iran; his assertion that he is “deeply troubled” by the violence there without mentioning who the perpetrators of the violence are; and the comment by his State Department spokesman, Ian Kelly, who refused to say whether the administration was willing to use the word “condemn” against the Iranian regime. Some people, like Jonathan Chait at the New Republic, argue that “Obama speaking out on behalf of Iran’s liberals would help the regime to discredit them as foreign agents.”
That is one way to look at it. Another way is to recall Ronald Reagan’s words in 1983, when, in speaking about the Soviet Union, he said this:
Yes, let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness — pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world…. I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written. I believe this because the source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual. And because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph over those who would enslave their fellow man.
Reagan’s speech — at the National Association of Evangelicals, no less — caused the liberal establishment to go into a tizzy. His words were said to be provocative, incautious, and unhelpful; they would make the Soviet leadership more intransigent and increase repression among Soviet dissidents. We might not like the Soviet Union, it was said, but we had no choice but to get along with them; and by using such aggressive language, Reagan was setting back the prospects for peace and liberation movements.
That’s not how the Soviet dissidents saw it. Consider this account, courtesy of Natan Sharansky:
It was the great brilliant moment when we learned that Ronald Reagan had proclaimed the Soviet Union an Evil Empire before the entire world. This was the moment. It was the brightest, most glorious day. Finally a spade had been called a spade. Finally, Orwell’s Newspeak was dead. President Reagan had from that moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union. It was one of the most important, freedom-affirming declarations, and we all instantly knew it. For us, that was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us. The lie had been exposed and could never, ever be untold now. This was the end of Lenin’s “Great October Bolshevik Revolution” and the beginning of a new revolution, a freedom revolution — Reagan’s Revolution.
Inmates developed their own type of Morse code to communicate the exhilarating news to one another, even tapping on toilets to send their messages. It was a moment of jubilation that spelled the end of the Soviet regime.
Natan Sharansky attributes the collapse of the Soviet Union largely to President Reagan’s efforts. He ascribes Reagan’s strong inner conviction to two traits: moral clarity and courage: “He had the moral clarity to understand the truth, and the courage both to speak the truth and to do what needed to be done to support it. There was more to Reagan than rhetoric. Thanks to Ronald Reagan, to the legacy he leaves behind, we now know that totalitarianism can be beaten and that freedom can come to anyone who wants it.”
It is a useful contrast, I think, between how Reagan approached brutal and terror-sponsoring regimes and how Obama does. For Obama, there may even be a tendency to place more public pressure on our allies than our adversaries (see Bret Stephens’s powerful Wall Street Journal column today).
G.K. Chesterton once referred to “easy speeches to comfort cruel men.” Leaders like Reagan (and his contemporary, Margaret Thatcher) were not terribly interested in providing comfort to cruel men. They instinctively identified with the victims of oppression rather than the oppressors — and they were, more often than not, willing to give those views public voice. What we are dealing with is a cast of mind, a disposition toward words, their power and meaning, and their capacity to shape events.
As between Reagan and Obama, I side with the former. It helps that events have vindicated him and his approach. We’ll see whether Obama can one day say the same thing.