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Instead, he expressed support, encouraged the reformers and hedged his bets in case the revolution veered out of control. The result of his deft public and private diplomacy was unthinkable: the peaceful dissolution of communist dictatorship in Europe, the peaceful reunification of Germany and ultimately the peaceful end of the Soviet Union and its empire.
As David Halberstam later put it in War in a Time of Peace, “In those turbulent, unpredictable days—dangerous because this was the last gasp of a dark empire, and old adversaries are often most dangerous in their dying moments—Bush and his team seemed to have perfect pitch.”
However, Obama should not follow Bush’s example on China. It was also in 1989 that Chinese students, spurred by events in Europe, took to the streets of Beijing to call for freedom. They held peaceful protests for democratic change, and in effect occupied a large swath of Tiananmen Square. When the military was ordered to disperse them, several units actually mutinied. The PRC brought in crack troops from far away to clear the protests. Thousands were killed.
Regrettably, rather than distancing America from China, Bush secretly dispatched Brent Scowcroft days later to mollify the men who turned Tiananmen red with blood and make sure Beijing understood that the fulminations of Congress didn’t reflect the administration’s China policy.
In other words, if the old dictators hold on in the Middle East—or if new dictators replace the old—the United States need not reach out to them or seek to understand them or smooth things over. Let them reach out to us. Let them seek to understand us. Let them make changes that will smooth things over with us.
That brings us to 2009, when Obama had his first chance to support the democrats of the Middle East. Iran was on the verge of a full-fledged counter-revolution that summer. Unlike in Egypt today, or China in 1989, there was no need for realpolitik calculations or cost-benefit comparisons about what we owed the Iranian government due to past partnerships or what the Iranian government could deliver down the road, because there was no relationship with the Iranian government. Yet Obama’s response to the Twitter Revolution was cold, calculating and largely silent. After days of saying nothing, he meekly promised to “bear witness” to the brutal crackdown that ultimately squashed Iran’s freedom movement. Obama had answered his own rhetorical question of a year before: “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?”
At least the elder Bush could argue that Scowcroft’s secret trip to China kept the imports flowing. America got nothing for averting its gaze during Iran’s crackdown.
Obama can yet recover from his administration’s pathetic initial response to the stirrings of change in Egypt, and in doing so help rehabilitate the administration’s image as aloof or indifferent to the spread of freedom in the Middle East.
After the administration’s initial pro-Mubarak gaffs, Secretary of State Clinton is pointing in the right direction: “We want to see a transition to democracy, and we want to see the kind of steps taken that will bring that about. We also want to see an orderly transition.”
The revolutions of the past 30 years remind us that a president can’t control how these transitions unfold. But he can control how America reacts to them.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security.
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