…like “we” face in Iran, I was in high school. The people of Poland – Slavic, but very westernized; devoutly religious, but with a small-“l” liberal history; communist for a generation, but against the will of most of the people; a vassal state subservient to a nation most Poles hated with a viscerality that’d curl most Americans’ nose hair – were demonstrating, and eventually rioting, for freedom.
Like the Iranian people, the Poles were ruled with an iron fist by a despotic ruling clicque that was unpopular withthe people – but the people only had so much say in matters. The candidates in their “elections” were carefully vetted by the rulers; those that stepped out of line – foreigners or domestics – were jailed and harassed. Assemblies of dissidents were attacked by gangs of government goons; Iranians are besieged by Basiji, Poles were pummeled by the ZOMO.
Of course, historical parallels are an intoxicating mirage; they’re almost inevitably a small island of attention-getting, synchronous factors among a sea of differences.
One key difference: There was, in Poland, one institution standing between the demonstrators and the Russians; one institution whose focus was more nationalistic than on the ideology (whether communist or western), that could step in to buffer the Polish state from suffering what the Czechs did in 1967, and the Hungarians in 1956 (and it seems hard to believe that more time has passed since the Solidarnosci era than passed between Budapest and Gdansk). The Polish Army – subservient to the Soviets, but with a long history of Polish nationalism – stepped in and ruled the country as a de facto military dictatorship until Communism started to crumble; like Franco’s rule in Spain, it arguably prevented a much worse Communist takeover, and – again, arguably – paved the way for Poland’s relatively stable democracy.
There is, to my knowledge, no such force in Iran today. The Shah actually built the Iranian Army to fill that role, thirty-odd years ago; it seems likely the mullahs have purged any such impulses from the military. Indeed, the Iran/Iraq war served much the same purposes for rulers on both sides; Hussein and Khomeini used the war to affirm their respective grips on power.
And on the other side? After the 1980 elections, Ronald Reagan led an unlikely coalition to covertly smuggle aid to the Polish labor movement; Margaret Thatcher worked with NATO to set up the pipeline; Pope John Paul II, nee Karol Wojtyla, a Pole, openly used the Catholic Church (to which over 90% of Poles belong) to subvert the communists, and surreptitiously made it part of the underground railroad of covert aid; Layne Kirkland of the AFL-CIO – nominally a sworn political enemy of Reagan’s – made the union contacts that closed the circle and got the money through.
Aid came from all over, thirty years ago; foundations sprang up to scour for donations big (the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters) and small (I ponied up $20) to send to the Polish workers.
But George W. Bush, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, did no such thing (according to Michael Ledeen) to get aid to the Iranian labor movement, and Obama seems unlikely to start. Indeed,what precious little Bush seems to have earmarked to support democracy in Iran may have been erased.
And when it was time for an American president to call the despots’ bluff?
One American president went to Communism’s front door and threw down:
Does anyone see Barack Obama calling a dictator’s bluff?
Don’t get me wrong; the time isn’t always right for all of the actions above. Had Reagan given the same speech at the Brandenburg Gate in, say, 1981, it would have been a very different thing.
But can anyone imagine Barack Obama going to the Brandenburg Gate and saying anything other than “present”?
Can you imagine him challenging the mullahs like that?