Michael Ledeen is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center and Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
I remember when Jimmy Carter invoked “human rights” to criticize the Soviet Union, and Leonid Brezhnev, the dictator of the totalitarian USSR, was furious. He knew it was very dangerous to his rule, and he let Carter know that the Russians wanted it called off.
Time showed how right Brezhnev was. Carter toned down his campaign, but over the years, a new generation of Soviet dissidents and refuseniks carried the criticism much further. From Bukovsky and Sharansky to Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, the evils of the Soviet Empire were exposed and attacked, until Reagan made the themes his own, and until Gorbachev in desperation launched his calls for glasnost and perestroika, hoping to preserve his Communist dictatorship despite its manifest failure.
It was clearly a triumph of American values over an anti-American enemy, and it succeeded because the Soviet peoples had been inspired by the leaders of the United States, and because the Soviet leaders had a failure of will. They could not bring themselves to crush the incipient revolution. They certainly had the power to do it, but they couldn’t bring themselves to give the orders. So the peoples of the empire changed the regimes, from Moscow to the captive nations. That was what Reagan wanted, and accomplished.
The most important part of Reagan’s success was the tireless critique he and his people unleashed on the Kremlin. It wasn’t just the well-known broadcasts from Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty; a lot came directly from the president, the secretary of state, and a plethora of senior officials. A lot of this campaign has been forgotten and denied. Reagan critics like to pretend, as is their wont, that the Soviet Empire fell because of its economic failure. As if the Communists hadn’t failed from the very beginning, and as if our practice of calling for the release of political prisoners were not crucial. But those of us who worked with the dissidents knew that Soviet Communism was doomed once the president had gone after its failed system. It would not have occurred to him to say we wanted a change in behavior, not a change in regime. I wish Messrs Trump, Pompeo, Bolton and Mattis would emulate Reagan’s example.
These thoughts come to mind as I watch the media and countless intellectuals and politicians call for harsh punishment of Saudi Arabia for the Khashoggi murder. I say to myself, all this furor for the assassination of one man, reminding me of Stalin’s ugly remark that one dead man is a tragedy, while a million dead is a statistic. His meaning is as clear as it is cruel: if you’re going to be a murderer, do it big-time. Thus the anti-Saudi campaign endures, while there is no comparable anti-Iranian outpouring (Khashoggi is lionized because he was a journalist, but one-third of the imprisoned and tortured journalists in the world are in the clutches of the Iranian totalitarians) or even an anti-Assad campaign (a half million dead at his hands; a mere statistic evidently).
What worries me most about the current state of affairs is that the intellectuals are devoting significantly more time and energy to bashing Saudi Arabia—a longtime friend—than to Iran and Syria (and China), self-proclaimed enemies. That’s crazy. I’m all for calling out murderers, wherever they are, but it makes no sense to treat friends worse than enemies. That is not just an “America first” foreign policy matter; it’s common sense.
As things stand, our deep thinkers seem more committed to regime change in Riyadh than in Tehran, which is nuts. We should be hell-bent on Iranian and Syrian regime change, and openly disappointed and disapproving of Saudi murderers. Is that so hard? Apparently so.
And what about the Russian attack on Ukraine, a friend. As I wrote with the clear-headed General Flynn, Putin is an enemy. There is no way, in my opinion, to get him to change his behavior. So our most effective strategy is the same as we used against the Soviet enemy and should be using against the Persian enemy: threaten his control of the regime. The most effective way to do that is to encourage his many domestic challengers, and that should be done by all our top leaders, and should employ our best diplomats as well. Threaten Putin with revolution, of the only sort that has succeeded: a true revolution, based on the proven principles of the American Revolution.
It’s not hard, but it requires the will to prevail and bring down our enemies.