FreeMediaOnline.org, Free Media Online Blog, GovoritAmerika.us, Commentary by Ted Lipien, June 26, 2009, San Francisco — Ronald Reagan’s strong response to the imposition of martial law against the independent Solidarity trade union in Poland in 1981 was distinctly different from President Barack Obama’s nuanced comments about the crackdown on demonstrators in Iran in the aftermath of the disputed Iranian presidential elections. While President Obama may have wanted to show his appreciation of the subtleties of Iranian politics, his public statements projected around the world a sense of confusion and weakness instead of showing firm American support for human rights and democracy.
Intellectually, President Obama is right that the current situation in Iran is not the same as the communist crackdown on Solidarity in Poland in the 1980’s and may require a different policy response from the way President Reagan dealt with communist regimes. But the right course of improving communications with the Muslim world, set by President Obama’s speech in Cairo, was undermined by his initial refusal to speak out strongly against violations of human rights in Iran. He may have lost some of the earlier respect among supporters of democracy in the Middle East and weakened his position vis-a-vis America’s most determined enemies.
President Obama is right that President George W. Bush had made monumental mistakes by his unsophisticated and interventionist approach to the Muslim world while appeasing other authoritarian rulers, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Public diplomacy mistakes by the Bush Administration are too numerous to list, but U.S. international broadcasting initiatives during the last eight years serve as a good example. The Bush-appointed Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) eliminated all Voice of America (VOA) highly-respected Arabic news programs and created Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV, which are viewed in the Middle East and by independent experts in the U.S. as propaganda stations that lack journalistic standards, credibility and audience. Alhurra had broadcast unchallenged statements by Holocaust deniers at a conference in Tehran organized by no other than President Ahmadinejad. The BBG had also eliminated Voice of America Russian radio programs just 12 days before the Russian army invaded the disputed parts of the Republic of Georgia. Democrats serving as members of the bipartisan BBG, including former BBG member Edward E. Kaufman, who has replaced Vice President Joe Biden as a U.S. Senator from Delaware, had been instrumental in helping the Bush Administration to make and implement many of the misguided decisions that have replaced objective journalism by the Voice of America with crude propaganda that damages America’s reputation and interests abroad.
President Obama is right in offering a new style of public diplomacy in the Middle East and throughout the world. He did not go to Alhurra to give his first interview targeted for the Middle East but chose an Arab TV network instead. Unfortunately, he still does not have around him enough good advisors who could help shape all of his public statements on human rights and freedom of expression issues, especially in times of crisis, so that he and his Administration do not appear at times as being intimidated by dictators of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s kind or appear naive and impulsive like President Bush.
As someone who was in charge of Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts to Poland during the Solidarity period, I agree that the two situations — the imposition of the martial law in Poland in December 1981 and the crackdown on demonstrations in Iran in June 2009 — are not identical. They both required, however, from the President of the United States a quick and decisive public response that would not be misinterpreted by foreign leaders and public opinion. Unfortunately, President Obama did not pass this latest test with flying colors.
Undoubtedly, he is a highly intelligent leader and hopefully capable of making right assessments and decisions. His reading of the situation in Iran may be in some ways correct, but his initial public response to this latest crisis was insufficient and quite wrong. He may have been told that workers and intellectuals in Iran are not as united against the religious regime as the Poles were against the communists in the 1980s. America was never seen by the vast majority of the Polish people as a threatening imperial power; Russia was. On the contrary, most Poles saw America as an only major ally that could help them free themselves from communism and Soviet domination. And unlike the religious authorities in Iran, the Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II were on the side of striking workers, protesting intellectuals and students.
But while the situation in Iran in 2009 is in some ways different from Solidarity’s struggles in Poland in the 1980s, the need for moral support for pro-democracy Iranian reformers is now just as urgent as support for Lech Walesa was for the Reagan White House. To achieve their goals, the reform-minded, largely urban Iranians who are behind the street protests could learn from Solidarity’s success in Poland by sticking to their non-violent posture. They could also follow the example of Solidarity’s intellectual advisers, who had shaped the alliance with the Polish industrial workers, by making a similar effort in reaching out to the poor, highly religious, and anti-Western rural voters who tend to support President Ahmadinejad and the clerical regime.
Even in Poland, where conditions were more favorable to creating a democratic society, the solidarity-building process between intellectuals and workers was long and arduous. It took several decades before the Polish society finally united to a sufficient degree against the communist rule. Strong but not overly aggressive statements from President Reagan, and radio broadcasts by the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, had helped the Poles in their struggle for freedom.
President Obama’s speech in Cairo, offering a new approach in dealing with the Muslim world, was a great public diplomacy success and was seen in the region as a new beginning. Unfortunately, public diplomacy experts at the White House and the State Department were not able to show a similar sophistication when a sudden crisis developed in Iran. President Obama’s overwhelming public concern how his comments in support for the protesting Iranians might be perceived by anti-Western, anti-democratic, and pro-clerical forces was clearly not the right response and opened him to criticism from his Republican opponents.
The White House could have taken a lesson or two from President Reagan on how to articulate a strong public diplomacy message that strikes the right balance between legitimate policy concerns and the impact of presidential statements on public opinion. It’s good for the president of the United States to be aware of all the subtleties of foreign policy, but in some situations speaking publicly about them sends a wrong message to both supporters and enemies of democracy. Reagan knew how to use public comments to project a strong and confident image abroad while still being able to practice diplomacy when it served America’s interests and the cause of freedom.
In responding to the crackdown on Solidarity In 1981, President Reagan expressed America’s unqualified support for freedom without any concern that he would be criticized in Moscow and Warsaw for interfering in Poland’s domestic politics or trying to undermine the Polish communist regime’s close links with the Soviet Union. He was still able to engage later in successful negotiations with Soviet and Polish communist leaders when they were already critically weakened by America’s resolve to support freedom. Reagan was decisive but not intellectually inflexible like President George W. Bush. His was the right approach, and history has proved him right.
I urge the Polish Government and its allies to consider the consequences of their actions. How can they possibly justify using naked force to crush a people who ask for nothing more than the right to lead their own lives in freedom and dignity? Brute force may intimidate, but it cannot form the basis of an enduring society, and the ailing Polish economy cannot be rebuilt with terror tactics.
Poland needs cooperation between its government and its people, not military oppression. If the Polish Government will honor the commitments it has made to human rights in documents like the Gdansk agreement, we in America will gladly do our share to help the shattered Polish economy, just as we helped the countries of Europe after both World Wars.
President Obama’s reaction to street demonstrations in Iran was markedly different in an interview with Harry Smith of CBS News, June 19, 2009.
CBS News Harry Smith: Let’s move on to the news of the day. The Ayatollah Khamenei gave his speech today, gave his sermon. He said that the election in Iran was, in fact, legitimate. He said, “The street demonstrations are unacceptable.” Do you have a message for those people in the street?
President Obama: I absolutely do. First of all, let’s understand that this notion that somehow these hundreds of thousands of people who are pouring into the streets in Iran are somehow responding to the West or the United States, that’s an old distraction that I think has been trotted out periodically. And that’s just not going to fly.
CBS News Harry Smith: People in this country say you haven’t said enough, that you haven’t been forceful enough in your support for those people in the street, and which you say?
President Obama: To which I say the last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States. That’s what they do. That’s what we’ve already seen. We shouldn’t be playing into that. There should be no distractions from the fact that the Iranian people are seeking to let their voices be heard.
Now, what we can do is bear witness and say to the world that the, you know, incredible demonstrations that we’ve seen is a testimony to, I think what Dr. King called the the arc of the moral universe. It’s long but it bends towards justice.
President Obama is right that the United States should not be seen as directly interfering in domestic Iranian politics, as this may hurt pro-democratic forces. But there is a big difference between actual interference and strong public statements in support of human rights abroad, especially in a crisis situation. Regardless of what President Obama says or does not say, Ahmadinejad’s supporters will still claim — as they have — that the United States is creating unrest in Iran. But if President Obama had taken a more Reagan-like approach in his public statements, while still maintaining diplomatic flexibility — supporters of human rights around the world would not be discouraged and enemies of freedom would not see him and the United States as confused by the events in Iran and weak against dictators. If the president’s public diplomacy advisers knew what they were doing, this would not have become an issue for the new administration. It is possible to have a sophisticated public diplomacy strategy in the Middle East without appearing too cautious in support of democracy and freedom of expression.
About Ted Lipien
Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America acting associate director. He was also a regional BBG media marketing manager responsible for placement of U.S. government-funded radio and TV programs on stations in Russia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries in Eurasia. In the 1980’s he was in charge of VOA radio broadcasts to Poland during the communist regime’s crackdown on the Solidarity labor union and oversaw the development of VOA television news programs to Ukraine and Russia. He is also author of “Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church” (O-Books – June 2008). In his book he describes the efforts of the KGB and other communist intelligence services to place spies in the Vatican and to influence reporting by Western journalists.
FreeMediaOnline.org is a San Francisco-based nonprofit which supports media freedom worldwide.
In December 2008, FreeMediaOnline.org launched a Russian-language web site — GovoritAmerika.us ГоворитАмерика.us — which includes summaries of some of the more serious news and commentaries from multiple U.S. government and nongovernment sources. According to Ted Lipien, the web site is designed to compensate for the loss of information from the United States for Russian-speaking audiences due to program and budget cuts implemented by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The web site, which includes links to VOA Russian Service news reports, is also designed to counter the BBG marketing strategy that has forced broadcasting entities to focus on entertainment programming and to avoid hard-hitting political reporting that might prevent local rebroadcasting or offend local officials. GovoritAmerika.us web site was developed without any public funding and is managed by volunteers. It is also hosted on LiveJournal.com.
BBG officials initially had told the VOA Russian Service that their requests to resume radio broadcasts were a “non-starter” even after Russia invaded Georgia. Only after weeks of protests, including reporting by FreeMediaOnline.org, the BBG finally allowed VOA to produce a short audio program for the Internet, updated only Monday through Friday. This program is rather difficult to find on the VOA website. We made it available for easier access and listening on the GovoritAmerika.us website managed by FreeMediaOnline.org.