Friday, June 19, 2009

Wolfowitz: Obama must step forward and support Iranian demonstrators

"[...T]he reform the Iranian demonstrators seek is something that we should be supporting. In such a situation, the United States does not have a "no comment" option. Coming from America, silence is itself a comment -- a comment in support of those holding power and against those protesting the status quo." ~Paul Wolfowitz

President Obama's first response to the protests in Iran was silence, followed by a cautious, almost neutral stance designed to avoid "meddling" in Iranian affairs. I am reminded of Ronald Reagan's initially neutral response to the crisis following the Philippine election of 1986, and of George H.W. Bush's initially neutral response to the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Both Reagan and Bush were able to abandon their mistaken neutrality in time to make a difference. It's not too late for Obama to do the same.

In 1986, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos had called a snap election, calculating that a divided opposition would hand him a clear victory that would undercut pressure from the Reagan administration for broad-based reform. Instead, the opposition parties united behind Corazon Aquino, and only massive fraud could produce a "victory" for Marcos.

On Feb. 11, as the votes were still being counted, Reagan announced a neutral position, reminding Americans that it was a "Philippine election" and praising "the extraordinary enthusiasm of Filipinos for the democratic process." Rather than blame Marcos for the fraud, which he called "disturbing," Reagan said that there may have been fraud "on both sides."

At the time, I was working for Secretary of State George Shultz as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and I shared Shultz's dismay at the president's comments. For more than two years, with the president's support, we had carefully pressed Marcos for reform. Reagan himself once cited Lord Acton's famous dictum, that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," while speaking of Marcos. Nevertheless Reagan's unfortunate comment about fraud on "both sides" threatened to put the United States on the wrong side at a critical moment. [ story continues here]

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