Jewish World Review Feb. 7, 2005 / 28 Shevat, 5765

Robert Robb

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Did I mean that? — Why Bush ‘encouraging’ Iran to rebel should be done with caution | The most pregnant phrase in President Bush's State of the Union address was this: "And to the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."

In his inaugural speech, Bush had made a similar but much more generalized pledge: "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know (w)hen you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."

As a generalized statement, Bush's pledge can be regarded as a renewal of the historical role of the United States as a friend of liberty for all people. There's not necessarily any specific action or assistance implied. But when Bush makes such a pledge to the people of a particular country, Iran, there is the implication of more than merely moral support.

There's a history here that suggests more caution than Bush has shown. More than once, the United States has given brave people reason to believe that it would do more to help them overthrow oppression than, in the event, it was willing to do.

As secretary of state under President Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles called for a U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union that went beyond containment. He coined the phrase "captive nations" to describe, accurately, the Eastern European countries under Soviet domination. He said that the United States should make publicly known that it "wants and expects liberation to occur." In 1956, the Hungarian people revolted against surrogate Soviet rule. Radio Free Europe, financially supported by the United States government, openly supported the rebellion, even offering tactical advice and guidance.

Dulles, in a speech, said that any Eastern European country that shook itself free of Soviet control could expect U.S. aid.

As the Soviets were weighing a course of action, Eisenhower, in a speech of his own, attempted to quell rising international tensions by making it clear that the United States would not take military action to assist the Hungarian rebels. That cleared the way for the Soviets to roll in tanks and troops to thoroughly quash the revolt.

After it was evident that the United States would prevail in the first Iraq war, President Bush I said: "(T)here's another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside ."

This was widely, and fairly, interpreted as a call for rebellion against Saddam's regime. The Shia and Kurds responded to the call, and the United States did nothing as Saddam brutally suppressed their overmatched fight for liberation.

That memory lingers today. It's why the Shiite leadership still does not fully trust the United States, and why once they gain full control over the government, the United States may very well be asked to leave before the Bush administration feels it's prudent.

Iran is a serious problem. It has hidden obvious attempts to develop a nuclear weapon and funds terrorism. The ruling religious clerics have eviscerated democratic reforms that gave some hope in the late 1990s and are virulently anti-American and anti-Israel.

Brookings Institution analyst Kenneth Pollack has done an excellent job tracing the troubled relationship between the United States and Iran in his recent book, The Persian Puzzle.

But regarding what to do about Iran, Pollack concludes that there are no good choices. The challenge is to pick the least bad option.

Most observers believe that there is a substantial pro-democracy and pro-United States sentiment in Iran, particularly among the young. There seems to be a substantial chance that, one day, a successful democratic transformation will take place there.

What Bush II means by the Iranian people "standing" for their liberty or the United States "standing" with them is unclear. But it would be fair for the Iranian people to conclude that Bush is urging them to be more confrontational toward the ruling clerics, and if they do so, the United States will provide assistance beyond mere cheer leading.

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But Bush has achieved no political consensus in support of such a strategy, and what the United States can do as a practical matter is limited. Diplomatically, the rest of the world is already largely ignoring U.S. efforts to isolate Iran. And there are severe logistical difficulties in providing on-the-ground assistance in the event of a confrontation.

A democratic Iran is much to be wished for, and would very much be in the best interest of the United States. But the United States should be careful not to induce Iranian democrats to believe that the United States will do more for them than it can or will.

In an account of the Hungarian rebellion in his book Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger finds fault with U.S. conduct not for failing to fulfill commitments, because there weren't any, but for failing to live up to "the implications of its pronouncements."

That's a history lesson that should guide President Bush's dialogue with the Iranian people.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


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