You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Liberal Response

I am a statist in many ways and in many areas. I believe that government has an important role to play in the economy, in health care, in protecting the environment, and certainly in foreign policy. But reading about the mass demonstrations in Iran, my first thought isn’t about what the U.S. government should do or what President Obama should say. It is about what the rest of us should do and say.

We boast of our lively civil society, and those of us on the liberal left call ourselves internationalists. So let’s use all our organizations and associations to act internationally--in support of liberals and leftists, friends of democracy, wherever they are. Confronting mass protests in Iran, where at least some of the protesters, perhaps many of them, are our political friends, let’s help them through our parties, and unions, and religious groups, and magazines. Let’s write about them, publish their stories, raise money for their activities, condemn their arrests, hold meetings, sign petitions, picket Iranian embassies in every country where we can mobilize the picketers. Let’s explore every possible means of agitation and advocacy on behalf of our principles and our friends.

This is an ideological struggle, and that kind of struggle isn’t first of all the business of governments. It is the business of politically committed men and women. We need to be clear about who we are and what we stand for and why we oppose the religious zealots and tyrants who have ruled Iran for the last decades.

Over much of those same decades, I have been arguing that our government should establish diplomatic relations with the Iranian zealots and tyrants. For liberals and leftists--opposition and nothing else; for state diplomats--handshakes and negotiation. The difference in the two roles is important. It doesn’t mean that heads of state cannot defend political principles, but they also have other things to do. Right now, the most important task of the U.S. government with regard to Iran is not regime change. The most important task is to persuade or coerce the Iranian government to give up the effort to produce nuclear weapons. Doing that will require some mix of toughness and conciliation--and that necessary mix will still be necessary whoever actually won and whoever finally wins the Iranian election. What Obama says must be guided by what he has to do.

The rest of us are much freer. We can distinguish between the Iranian presidential candidates, all of whom were approved by the religious leadership, and their followers, many of whom have dissident views that the religious leaders would not approve. The dissidents are the people we should be supporting, whose stories we should be telling. And we should be talking to them about the kind of support they want and need. They and we are aiming at, and have every right to aim at, regime change. Organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, though they can’t acknowledge it, aim at regime change whenever they condemn the practices of tyrannical regimes; and so should union members and democrats of every sort, and religious moderates committed to freedom, and faculty members and students who believe in the integrity of the university. Regime change (it used to be called revolution) is our business, and we should embrace it.

Michael Walzer is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This piece also appears on the website for Dissent Magazine.

By Michael Walzer