Jewish World Review Feb. 7, 2005 / 28 Shevat, 5765
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
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.
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.
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02/27/04: How not to achieve a mandate