When Ron Paul cast the lone vote against the House resolution condemning the Iranian government’s post-election actions, I expected to hear a great deal more wailing about the perils of “isolationism,” but thanks to an unusual coincidence the position Rep. Paul has taken also happens to be more or less the one that the President adopted at least for the first week or so. As time goes by, the two are likely to diverge in their views, but for the most part Paul’s lone nay has not been treated with as much scorn as I thought it would receive. Not until, that is, Grant Havers weighed in earlier this week. Havers writes:
Perhaps paleos who have recently gone on record opposing “interference” and “intervention” in Iran need to define exactly what they mean by these terms. Do interference and intervention refer to the unlikely act of sending in the Marines, or do these words also include any moral support for embattled democratic forces in Iran? While I support paleos who condemn military intervention in Iran in light of the sorry history of past interventions in the Middle East, I fail to see why democratic governments should hold their rhetorical fire against the mullahs. Surely we are not condemned to the dualistic and extreme choice between outright military intervention and eerie silence, which offers no hope to human beings like the frightened Iranian woman I mentioned earlier.
Something that I don’t quite understand is why anyone would conclude that silence or minimal comment condemning the Iranian government’s violence by government officials requires that private individuals refrain from expressing their moral support. There has been no small amount of moral support offered to the protesters by citizens of Western democracies. While I might find these enthusiasms a bit romantic, unduly earnest and misplaced (because it seems inevitably to lead to calls for the government to “do something”), other citizens are free to express their solidarity with Iranian protesters as they see fit. Interference refers obviously to actions taken by the government. The actions of the U.S. government have to be taken with American interests in mind, and representatives of the government ought to act accordingly. To borrow from the famous 1821 speech of then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, America has “abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.” We have grown so accustomed to interference that we seem incapable of grasping that it is deeply at odds with our earliest traditions of foreign policy. Does that mean that many American citizens did not openly sympathize with the Spanish and Italian liberals who were at that time being beaten down by Restoration forces? Of course not. It means that our government did not concern itself with things that were none of its business. So that is one part of the answer why the government should not interfere.
The other part is one that has already been thoroughly rehearsed over the last two weeks, which is that having our government hold its “rhetorical fire” may be more useful in aiding the protesters than a daily stream of outraged pronouncements from Washington. After all, if the call to interfere is merely a call for expressions of moral support, what good is it doing anyone? Will Washington’s moral support make the Basij militiaman more or less likely to see the Iranian protester in front of him as a fellow Iranian rather than a criminal? If it will make the protester’s situation more difficult, whose cause is served by showing solidarity?
Have the government make a statement expressing moral support, and you may feel very content, but it may have serious consequences for the very people you are trying to aid. Encouragement can easily bleed over into reckless promises of assistance, or it can be perceived wrongly as such, in which case the lost lives of protesters who trusted in empty words will be on the heads of those in government who made these statements. This would be the worst of both worlds: effectively uninvolved, but still bearing the moral responsibility for goading the dissidents into futile, bloody resistance. Unable and unwilling to take any greater direct action, perhaps it is best for the government to refrain from making statements in support of the protesters.
Havers cites Solzhenitsyn’s call for greater Western interference inside the USSR to admonish the advocates of non-interference. It may be unthinkable for some to say so, but Solzhenitsyn’s perspective on what American foreign policy ought to have been was not always as wise and sober as his reflections on moral and religious truth. In his Harvard speech, Solzhenitsyn made the following remarks, which even the greatest admirers of Solzhenitsyn have to find more than a little embarrassing:
However, the most cruel mistake occurred with the failure to understand the Vietnam war. Some people sincerely wanted all wars to stop just as soon as possible; others believed that there should be room for national, or communist, self-determination in Vietnam, or in Cambodia, as we see today with particular clarity. But members of the U.S. anti-war movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there. Do those convinced pacifists hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear? The American Intelligentsia lost its [nerve] and as a consequence thereof danger has come much closer to the United States. But there is no awareness of this. Your shortsighted politicians who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing pause; however, a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over you. That small Vietnam had been a warning and an occasion to mobilize the nation’s courage. But if a full-fledged America suffered a real defeat from a small communist half-country, how can the West hope to stand firm in the future?
Solzhenitsyn was in many ways a moral genius and a prophetic voice, and I think he was a good writer, but in this instance he was not, alas, a serious foreign policy thinker nor was he a strategist. One can understand why a man who suffered so deeply in the Gulag would adopt an unflinching, uncompromising attitude towards communism everywhere, but the alarmism that compelled him to warn of a looming “hundredfold Vietnam” a mere eleven years before the collapse of the USSR should make us think again about his equally insistent demand to interfere early and often. What devoted anticommunists could not then and to some extent today still cannot admit is that Vietnam was basically unnecessary and irrelevant to the greater success of the West in the Cold War. They furthermore cannot accept that the millions who died in the war and the millions who perished in its aftermath most likely would not have died had there never been a “crusade” to save South Vietnam. This is a bitter truth, and there are not many people who would want to accept this. Being wrong about this does not change all of the things that Solzhenitsyn got right, but thirty-one years later we might note that we have listened more often than not to people who have said that the West was lacking in willpower, needed to show more “resolve,” and had gone horribly wrong in withdrawing from Vietnam, and in almost every instance in the last three decades those people have been as wrong as can be. If we admire Solzhenitsyn and can find a record of Solzhenitsyn saying things that could be put into the mouths of interventionists today, we should take care not to expose Solzhenitsyn to ridicule.
Do we really believe that “there are no longer any internal affairs”? While I understand why a man who wished to see the Soviet monstrosity removed from his home country would say this in 1974, is this really the sort of claim that anyone would want to endorse today? Are there no internal affairs of the United States? Are there no internal affairs of Iran? Have we all been pressed together by our sheer numbers such that we cannot discern where one state begins and another ends? I think we know the answer. One might have asked the Solzhenitsyn of 2004 whether he still believed that “there are no longer any internal affairs” when it came to Western denunciations of Russia, and I tend to think that he would have changed his mind. I suspect that internal affairs would have come back into existence. I am not saying this to criticize Solzhenitsyn. A dissident against a monstrous system will seek aid where and how he can–that is his obligation, and he is doing what he can for his country as a patriot. However, it is not necessarily the job of the United States government to follow his lead, nor does the government have to accept his claims.
In the address Havers cited, Solzhenitsyn quoted a Russian proverb: “The yes-man is your enemy, but your friend will argue with you.” I agree with this entirely. It applies to so many foreign policy debates past and present: the war in Iraq, Israel policy, America’s military presence abroad, and on and on. Turn it around and apply it to the dissenters in other countries. The advocates of interference want us not only to offer moral support to the dissenters, which probably will not help them, but they are positively urging us to become their cheerleaders and propagandists abroad. Following this proverb, this means that we will become their enemies, because we will be cheering them on in what might well be a disastrous course of action. It could be that the friend of Iranian reform and the protesters at this point will even go so far as to question whether the protesters are doing their own cause more harm than good in the long run. The meaning of the proverb is that unreflective, uncritical backing is dangerous; true concern for someone’s well-being will sometimes require disagreement and argument. I would add that sometimes it may require a government to remain mostly quiet while that person carries on his struggle, lest the government compromise or sabotage that struggle in a foolish attempt to affirm its own importance and status in the world.