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The Return Of Idealism

The past few years haven't been kind to foreign policy idealism--the belief that when authoritarian states mistreat their own people, it is a matter of concern for all of us. We idealists can largely blame ourselves for this. The biggest reason idealism fell out of favor was Iraq--a disastrous war that many of us foolishly supported in the naive belief that substituting liberalism for totalitarianism in the heart of the Middle East would be a relatively simple thing. We made mistakes beyond Iraq, too. We accepted George Bush's facile faith that holding a vote was the same thing as creating a functioning liberal democracy--then watched as a disastrous election in Palestine made a mockery of this idea. Given such misjudgments, I can understand why people did not want to hear from us when we argued for sending troops to Darfur or threatening the Burmese generals during the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis or taking a harder line on human rights in China. I still think we were right on these three issues, and I think that foreign policy idealism remains a far more compelling, humane way to view geopolitics than the alternative--a cold, calculating realism. But given how many things we got wrong over the past eight years, I do understand why our way of thinking about the world has suffered a hit in popularity. And it was not undeserved.

So I have been struck over the past few days by the response of American pundits to the events in Iran. I cannot remember the last time that there was such a clear consensus across the political spectrum that one side in an internal political dispute in another country deserved our unabashed support. Every publication from The Weekly Standard to The Nation seems exhilarated by the prospect of Iranian liberals standing up to the theocrats who rule their country. Of course, there are sharp disagreements over how we should support the protesters. Should Obama speak out loudly on their behalf? Or would a forceful American response simply aid the mullahs and undermine the protesters? These are important questions, but they are tactical ones. What no one seems to be disputing is the underlying idea that Iranian liberals deserve our support--that their fight is our concern.

Last year, John McCain was widely mocked for his declaration that "we are all Georgians." True, the analogy between that crisis and this one isn't perfect: The Russia-Georgia war was a dispute between two countries, while this is a dispute between two sides in the same country. But the principle is the same. McCain was identifying what he believed to be the more liberal, more democratic side in a faraway conflict and expressing his unabashed support for it. To hear the ridicule that greeted McCain's statement, you might have concluded that Americans had lost their appetite for foreign policy idealism of any kind. But today, there seems to be near-unanimity that Americans ought to be rooting for one side in Iran. Which suggests that our instinct toward foreign policy idealism, however battered by the past eight years, is still very much alive.

It remains to be seen whether this consensus on Iran will trickle up to the White House. Obama has shown little appetite for criticizing other governments, for making the kinds of moral judgments that are at the core of foreign policy idealism. For now, you can at least make a plausible argument that Obama's relatively quiet approach is serving Iranian protesters well. But if we reach a situation--for instance, a Tiananmen-style crackdown--where it becomes obvious that strong condemnations and tough diplomacy will be required to protect Iranian liberals, will Obama have the stomach for it? And will public opinion be able to pressure him to do the right thing? That is when we will find out just how strong a comeback idealism has made.

There are plenty of reasons to be cautious about what is unfolding in Iran. It all could end horribly, for one thing. And Mousavi is not exactly Havel. Still, it is impossible not to be profoundly moved by what many Iranians are doing to try to save their country. And it is refreshing to see, for the first time in a long time, that so many Americans of so many different political inclinations are watching a struggle over freedom in a faraway place, and are ready to take sides.

--Richard Just

Click here to read a response from TNR senior editor John B. Judis.

Click here to read a response from TNR executive editor Peter Scoblic.