I am always surprised whenever Reagan’s response to the Polish crackdown on Solidarity shows up in complaints about the U.S. response to the Iranian election protests. The idea is that Obama could have taken a stronger stand in support of the Green movement akin to Reagan’s expressions of support for Solidarity, which exaggerates how much support Reagan gave the striking trade unionists, it ignores the differences between the Polish and Iranian situations, and it also ignores that Reagan was similarly pilloried for his supposed “failure” because his critics believed he had not responded strongly enough to the Polish crackdown. Here is Frank Schell’s version of this argument:
For over forty years of the Cold War, bipartisan forces in America stood steadfast with the peoples of Eastern Europe in their painful struggle against Soviet totalitarianism. Resistance was encouraged by U.S. administrations although intervention was deemed impractical during crises such as the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But never did a U.S. president not aggressively support Lech Walesa or other leaders of Solidarity for fear of projecting American values into the region or strengthening the hand of reactionaries.
By standing “steadfast,” Schell means that the U.S. essentially did nothing in the face of the brutal suppression of Soviet satellites, even when it had been U.S. encouragement that led Hungarians to rise up in 1956. Reagan did speak at length about Poland in his 1981 Christmas address, and listed very few concrete actions that he was taking in response to the crackdown. U.S. relations with Poland before the crackdown were much better than U.S.-Iranian relations in 2009, and there was an economic relationship between the countries that Reagan could choose to curtail. None of those things was true for the U.S. in responding to the Iranian crackdown.
Of course, Western expressions of support were bound to be received differently in Poland than in Iran, as I wrote a few years ago:
There was little chance that Polish nationalists would be offended by Western expressions of support against the Soviets, and it mattered that the Polish view of Western intervention was not that it had happened too frequently in their past but that it had been too lacking. While the Poles looked, usually in vain, to the West for direct aid during its many partitions and occupations, Iranians have been on the receiving end of partitions into spheres of influence and direct or indirect domination via proxy governments during the modern era.
In both cases, there was relatively little that the U.S. could do. There was more to Reagan’s response, because there was more of a pre-existing relationship between the two governments, whereas there was no relationship between the U.S. and Iran at all. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Reagan’s slightly more vocal criticism of the Polish crackdown wasn’t appreciated by the neoconservatives of his time as a strong response. Norman Podhoretz wrote in the aftermath of the crackdown on Solidarity that Reagan had missed an important opportunity:
On the contrary, the President has even said that he welcomes the signs of an impending breakup of the Soviet empire from within and he has looked forward to a time when Communism itself will disappear. Yet presented with an enormous opportunity to further that process, what has President Reagan done? Astonishingly, he has turned the opportunity down [bold mine-DL]. This is all the more astonishing in that the risks of seizing that opportunity were and are minimal.
Reagan was charged at the time with “acquiescing and even cooperating” in confirming Soviet control of Poland. This criticism was unfair in 1982, and it is unfair today. Both attacks are informed by unrealistic expectations of the influence that the U.S. had over the internal affairs of other countries, and by equally unrealistic expectations of what greater overt U.S. support could have achieved. Critics are very quick to say that an opportunity was missed or “squandered” in 2009, but at no point do they explain what it was that could have been done that would have made any constructive difference.
Schell now urges the administration “to reach out to the Iranian public to stress that U.S. sanctions against the central bank and a potential European embargo on Iranian oil are directed at the current regime and not at the Iranian people.” Of course, these measures adversely affect all Iranians whether they are “directed” at them or not. The Iranians whose savings are being destroyed by the collapse of the rial aren’t going to be interested in what the U.S. meant when it sanctioned Iran’s central bank. What they will remember is that a foreign government caused a significant part of the “economic pandemonium” that Schell treats as yet another “opportunity” to be seized, and they will naturally resent it.