Missing the “freedom agenda” on the Fourth of July

Missing the “freedom agenda” on the Fourth of July

By Kori Schake

This weekend we celebrate our country’s independence and the courage of those brave men who met in congress in Philadelphia to chart a path to greater liberty. Despite the considerable effort Jefferson goes to in the Declaration to enumerate the crown’s depredations, and the very real grievances Americans had against the British government, we stand now far enough from the colonial experience to acknowledge we rebelled against perhaps the most humane and legally responsible government of its time.

And yet we rebelled. We are a country founded on the belief that people have rights, and they loan them in limited ways for limited purposes to their government. We were made great by distrust of a largely beneficial British government, and we remain great by distrust of our own. 

Which is what makes our president’s response to Iran’s elections so discouraging. America’s reflex — our natural position as a country — is to stand with a people against their government when that government is infringing upon their natural rights. But our president chose the course of deference to an authoritarian government as it repressed its own people.

We do not know whether the Iranian election was fair. It certainly strains credulity to believe Ahmadinejad won more votes than any Iranian office-seeker of all time. Or that he decisively carried every demographic in every region. But to be honest, the June vote was never going to be all that significant. What we call Iranian "moderates" are not; advocates of real change in Iran are stricken from the ballot by the hundreds. 

Nor do hundreds of thousands of Iranians filling the streets prove the election was invalid, as moving as their mute protests were. Ahmadinejad’s support was likely to be rural, not urban. Muqtada al-Sadr turned similar numbers out into the streets of Iraq’s cities, and we did not consider that invalidating of the elected government. Our founding fathers, John Adams in particular, worried about democracy emboldening the mob instead of the people.

But it is the behavior of the Iranian government in reaction to the protests that we should unequivocally object to. Iranian protestors were not hurling Molotov cocktails and kidnapping government officials. They were engaged in a disciplined civil disobedience of the kind that changed our country many times: independence, the civil rights movement, anti-war campaigns. We belong by their side.

Our president expressed "deep concern" and urged the Iranian government to respect its people. He had to be pulled by public reaction into condemning the Iranian government as it threatened executions of protestors. This from a president who repeatedly lectures us that there is no conflict between our values and our interests.

His "realism" and caution now are of a kind with his initial reaction to Russia’s invasion of Georgia last summer, when he urged both the invader and the invaded to exercise restraint. President Obama is a "realist," unwilling to impinge on our national interests or the established international rules of state sovereignty, even when those interests and rules crush the hopes of others striving to gain by peaceful means what we have long enjoyed.

This all makes me a little homesick for what came to be called "the freedom agenda" in the Bush administration — now that we are hearing what the alternative sounds like, now that we are taking the measure of ourselves as a nation, and now that we are willing to consign other people’s freedom to our interests. It makes us a little less a force for good in the world, a little less deserving to say we hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.