A Candle for Iran? A Reagan Lesson for Obama — from Christmas 1981

December 23, 2009 | by | Topic: American History & Presidents, Faith & SocietyPrint Print

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared at American Thinker.


Twice in this space last summer, I wrote about Iran — specifically, the dramatic June protests against the theocratic-totalitarian regime of Holocaust-denying despot Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. More than that, I focused on President Obama’s reaction to the Iranian cry for freedom.

Obama’s initial response was outrageous. It improved only after widespread criticism. Still, even given the improvement in his rhetoric, it was a telling display of our new president’s tragic lack of recognition of what presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush termed the “March of Freedom.”

I concluded those articles by emphasizing the need for Obama to employ the bully pulpit of the presidency to promote this vital groundswell of freedom in Iran. I noted how Reagan had done precisely that in places like Poland in the 1980s, with grand historical results. For Obama, this means not simply reacting to occasional incidents in Iran — when they rarely present themselves — but to be proactive, creative, to regularly call out the tyrants and encourage the dissidents. Obama must do this if he wants to push the freedom tide, if he wants to try to change the status quo in a dungeon like Iran, which for 30 years has been the world’s worst terrorist state.

If I may, I’d like to offer a specific example from the Reagan playbook. It happened 28 years ago — Christmas time — this week. You will not hear about in our public schools and liberal universities. That’s a loss for liberals, too; they’re missing a moving lesson that their guy — President Obama — could benefit from considerably.

The moment was December 1981. In the Evil Empire, “church watchers” were on duty, sitting in chapels monitoring the “stupid people” entering to worship. The communist “war on religion”(Mikhail Gorbachev’s apt description) was in full rot, as was the ugliness of communist repression generally.

The prospects for shining light upon that darkness seemed bleak. The Soviets were on the march, having added 11 proxy states as allies since 1974. The new man in Washington, President Ronald Reagan, was sure he could reverse Moscow’s surge. He would jump-start the process in Poland, a repressed Communist Bloc state — but one where hope survived.

Just then, on December 13, the lights went out again. At midnight, as a soft snow fell on Warsaw, secret police raided Lech Walesa’s Solidarity labor union. The Polish communist government, consenting to orders from Moscow, declared martial law. Solidarity’s freedom fighters were shot or imprisoned. The flames of liberty were being snuffed out.

But as Poles prayed for light to pierce the shadows, some remarkable things began to transpire. A week and a half later, the Polish ambassador defected to the United States. Right away, President Reagan welcomed the ambassador and his wife into the Oval Office. They were overwhelmed. The ambassador’s wife wept, as Vice President George H. W. Bush put an arm around her shoulders to comfort her.

The ambassador then made an extraordinary request: “May I ask you a favor, Mr. President? Would you light a candle and put in the window tonight for the people of Poland?” Ronald Reagan rose and walked to the second floor, lighted a candle, and put it in the White House window.

But Reagan wanted to do more. He saw a window of opportunity. So, on December 23, with Christmas only two days away,speaking to all of America in a nationwide address, the president connected the spirit of the season with events in Poland: “For a thousand years,” he told his fellow Americans (watch video here), “Christmas has been celebrated in Poland, a land of deep religious faith, but this Christmas brings little joy to the courageous Polish people. They have been betrayed by their own government.” The president then took a remarkable liberty: He asked Americans that Christmas to light a candle for freedom in Poland.

It was a significant gesture, for Poland, for America, for a free world. Poles heard about it, and took it to heart; they talk about it still today.

What does this have to do with President Obama and Iran? Everything. To wit: How about doing something similar for Iranians today? Why not light a candle as a sign of hope for Iran’s freedom fighters’ If not a candle, then something — some kind of overt public display.

Would such an action offend the Iranian leadership? Of course — just as the light of day and light of truth repels a vampire.

The point, again, is for the American president to be proactive, creative, encouraging, to advance positive change. He can make these simple but profound gestures even as he proceeds with his domestic agenda. Reagan did. Reagan — quite apart from Obama’s mindset — passed his massive tax-reduction program in 1981.

Of course, there’s an interesting juxtaposition there: Both domestically and in foreign policy, Reagan sought to remove power from the state and transfer it to the individual — whether through tax cuts for Americans or through undermining the communist totalitarianism shackling Poles. Obama is looking to empower the state domestically, while not undermining the theocratic totalitarianism shackling Iranians. It’s an instructive contrast.

And so, President Obama, I go back to my conclusion in my earlier articles: If you want to employ America as that light, as that beacon of freedom, then get going. Bring a flicker of hope to freedom’s dungeon. Shine it into the terror state of Iran.

Of course, proclaiming liberty to the captives means desiring so. A proclaimer must first be a believer. Like Reagan, and, yes, like George W. Bush, you need to believe in the American ideal — in the heart, the soul, the gut. You need to believe, as Ronald Reagan did, that America is less a place than an idea.

Is Obama a believer? I said six months ago that time will tell. So far, the story isn’t promising.

Paul G. Kengor

Paul G. Kengor

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. His other books include The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.

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