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Can U.s. Support Undermine Revolutions?

Over the past few days, many of Obama's critics have argued that he should be speaking out more forcefully in favor of the Iranian opposition. Charles Krauthammer called the administration's position "absurd," while Paul Wolfowitz made a similar argument by referencing his own experience in urging President Reagan to withdraw support from the Marcos regime in the Philippines. Republican congressman Michael Pence slammed the president, noting, "When Ronald Reagan went to the Brandenburg Gate, he did not say ‘Mr. Gorbachev, that wall is none of our business.'" Dan Senor and Christian Whoton suggested in Time that the president is historically ignorant. "As for the notion that American action is unhelpful to reformers, this simply contradicts historical experience," they write, "Successful movements to alter authoritarian and totalitarian regimes almost always depend on internal dissent backed by strong international support."

However, a broader look at the effect that U.S. support has had for democratic movements may support Obama's strategy:

Russia, 1918:

Perhaps no American intervention in a civil dispute has backfired as badly as the verbal and--by August 1918--military support it lent the mixture of monarchists, democrats, and opportunists that made up the anti-Bolshevik white movement of the Russian Civil War. The weakness of the efforts of the Wilson administration and its English and French allies gave the Red Army a much-needed public relations victory. In the words of Hugh Martin, the American assistant military attache to Russia,  "The weakness of our intervention gave to the Bolsheviks one of their most powerful weapons of propaganda." While many factors contributed to the Red victory in the civil war, most experts agree that the Allied intervention helped. "With the Bolsheviks floundering in stormy seas," writes historian David Foglesong, "the Allies tossed them a lifebuoy."

Iraq, 1991:

The failed uprisings following the First Gulf War raise the possibility that U.S. involvement could backfire in another way. After expelling the Iraqi Army from Kuwait, George H.W. Bush called on the people of Iraq to rise up against the government of Saddam Hussein, saying, "There is another way for the bloodshed to stop. And that is, for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and then comply with the United Nations' resolutions and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations." The people of Iraq rose up, and with no U.S. military backing, were promptly crushed, killing around 80,000 people.

Iran, 2003:

The U.S. doesn't need to be the one extending a hand in order for its support to be damaging; even when the opposition itself reaches out to the U.S., the ties can undermine their cause. In his book The Soul of Iran, journalist Afshin Molavi recounts protests from 2003, called by the Daftar-e Tahkim-e-Vahdat, a reformist student group. The Dafter sent a letter, which it posted on its website, to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, calling for U.N. assistance in their struggle. "The letter was incendiary at home," Molavi writes, "The Daftar broke one of the key unwritten rules of conduct in Iran's battered but still battling civil society space: they reached out for foreign assistance. Reprisals would come. It was only a matter of time."

Ukraine, 2004:

In the Orange Revolution, few doubt the importance of pre-election American pro-democracy aid. However, this benefit turns to a cost when a war of rhetoric occurs. Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russian then-prime minister who won the first, rigged round of voting, found references to U.S. involvement to be a particularly effective tool against his opponent, eventual president Viktor Yushchenko (left). "The United States' meddling into Ukraine's internal affairs is obvious," he told the AP. "It is appearing as the financing of Yushchenko's campaign." These accusations got a wide hearing in local media, with one Ukrainian newspaper alleging that the Yushchenko was being supported by the "NATO psychological operations centre" in Portugal. Would these accusations have been made even without U.S. interference? Perhaps, but U.S. involvement gave them an air of credibility.

Kyrgyzstan, 2005:

Similar to the Orange Revolution, the extensive American support to democratic organizers here was important in setting the stage for the Tulip Revolution that overthrew dictator Askar Arayev. However, as in Ukraine, U.S. backing became an effective cudgel for Arayev to wield against dissidents once the actual revolution began. He forged a document that appeared to have been written by the U.S. ambassador, and featured such lines as, "Our primary to increase pressure upon Akaev (sic) to make him resign ahead of schedule after the parliamentary elections."

As the Obama administration ponders how to react to events in Iran, perhaps they should pay heed to Iran's own opposition leaders, who have come out against American involvement. Mohsen Kavidar, a civil rights leader and cleric, told The Daily Beast's Benjy Sarlin, "What Obama has done so far is about perfect.... The green movement for democracy and liberty Iran is independent and we don't need anything from the foreigners." Noted dissident Akbar Ganji, speaking with the Washington Independent''s Spencer Ackerman, agreed. "From my perspective, Obama has so far said he won’t meddle in Iran’s internal situation, and that’s a good, good approach," he said. Nobel laureate and human rights attorney Shirin Ebadi told the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler the same. "What happens in Iran regards the people themselves, and it is up to them to make their voices heard," she argued, adding her views on Obama's response: "I respect his comments on all the events in Iran, but I think it is sufficient."

--Dylan Matthews