Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How Are Tyrannical Regimes Toppled? Jonathan S. Tobin


President Obama struck many of the right notes about recent events in the Middle East in his press conference today. It was encouraging to hear him speak out about the right of free speech and assembly as “universal principles” and not merely as Western constructs that need not apply to the Arab and Islamic worlds. That he is doing so belatedly when a consistent stand in favor of human rights as an American priority has been so lacking in his first two years in office does not make it any less welcome today. Also welcome are his direct criticisms of Iran and its violent repression of protesters this week, an action that the president rightly derided as hypocritical since Tehran cheered the protests that toppled Mubarak in Egypt. In doing so, he also lauded peaceful demonstrations and deprecated terrorism:

And I also think that an important lesson — and I mentioned this last week — that we can draw from this is real change in these societies is not going to happen because of terrorism; it’s not going to happen because you go around killing innocents — it’s going to happen because people come together and apply moral force to a situation. That’s what garners international support. That’s what garners internal support. That’s how you bring about lasting change.

This is a laudable sentiment, but as a hard and fast rule of thumb, I have to wonder how true it actually may be. When speaking of the inadmissibility of America telling everyone how to live, Obama noted that every country is different and has its “own traditions.” But if we are to think seriously about how tyrannies are toppled in practice rather than in principle, we need to understand that Gandhi-like protests simply won’t work everywhere.

It is an unfortunate but ironclad rule of history that oppressive regimes fall not when they are most repressive but when they ease up on repression. This was true of pre-revolutionary France and also true of Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011.

A government, even one that is led by a dictator or an absolute monarch, that lacks the willingness to engage in brutality is vulnerable to popular protests simply because the people come to understand that they can challenge their rulers with relative impunity. The same was true of colonial regimes that, for all their violence, ultimately were unable to defend horrible tactics to their own populations at home. But a government that lacks such scruples or, as is most often the case, still retains the will to kill even large numbers of protesters and dissidents is a different case entirely.

As we saw in 2009 in Iran and again this week, the ayatollahs and their cadres haven’t lost their willingness to engage in widespread brutality. Indeed, the bloodlust demonstrated today by members of the government who publicly called for the trial and execution of the leaders of the opposition is telling.

So long as that is true, neither the numbers nor the sincerity of the protesters’ belief in nonviolence will change anything. This is, to no small extent, yet another illustration of the truth of Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s famous 1979 COMMENTARY essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” in which she pointed out the difference between those regimes that are vulnerable to change and those that are not.

So, as much as we should applaud President Obama’s idealistic, if belated, support for the Iranian protesters, let us not labor under the illusion that peaceful protests have a prayer of overthrowing the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad government. That is why the United States, which has every right to see to it that a violent, terrorist-supporting regime such as Iran never obtains nuclear capability, must do more than merely passively cheer on the hopeless efforts of Iran’s dissidents.

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