Someday a future president may have to apologize to Iranians for Mr. Obama’s nonfeasance, just as Mr. Obama apologized for the Eisenhower administration’s meddling. But the better Eisenhower parallel is with Hungary in 1956. Then as now a popular uprising coalesced around a figure (Imre Nagy in Hungary; Mir Hossein Mousavi in Iran), who had once been a creature of the system. Then as now it was buoyed by inspiring American rhetoric about freedom and democracy coming over Voice of America airwaves. And then as now the administration effectively turned its back on the uprising when U.S. support could have made a difference. Hungary would spend the next 33 years in the Soviet embrace.
The support of the US government for the Hungarian uprising in 1956 “could have made a difference” only if the US were prepared to invade Hungary and go to war with the USSR. The US would quickly have lost such a confrontation to the overwhelming Soviet superiority in conventional forces in Europe, and would have risked seeing Soviet tanks roll into Western Europe as well. The US would then have been faced with the decision of whether to launch a nuclear war. President Eisenhower made the correct — the only possible — decision, in declining to intervene in Hungary.
The error in 1956 was on the part of Radio Free Europe, in holding out to Hungarian resisters the false hope that the West would or could intervene on their behalf. It would be similarly cruel and immoral to give Iranian demonstrators the false idea that we in the democratic world can offer them anything more than our sympathy. We can’t. We will not invade Iran, and nothing else we do will have much of an effect on the behavior of a regime fighting to retain its hold on power. The demonstrators in Iran must know that they have to win the struggle for a fair election on their own, and must be prepared to face the consequences of failure. And they do know this. That is precisely what makes them so courageous. It would be stupid and irresponsible of the US to use their struggle as an occasion for ineffectual rhetorical grandstanding, and fortunately President Obama, unlike our last President, seems able to resist the temptation.
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