'No Comment' Is Not an Option
President Obama's first response to the protests in Iran was silence, followed by a cautious, almost neutral stance designed to avoid "meddling" in Iranian affairs. I am reminded of Ronald Reagan's initially neutral response to the crisis following the Philippine election of 1986, and of George H.W. Bush's initially neutral response to the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Both Reagan and Bush were able to abandon their mistaken neutrality in time to make a difference. It's not too late for Obama to do the same.
In 1986, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos had called a snap election, calculating that a divided opposition would hand him a clear victory that would undercut pressure from the Reagan administration for broad-based reform. Instead, the opposition parties united behind Corazon Aquino, and only massive fraud could produce a "victory" for Marcos.
On Feb. 11, as the votes were still being counted, Reagan announced a neutral position, reminding Americans that it was a "Philippine election" and praising "the extraordinary enthusiasm of Filipinos for the democratic process." Rather than blame Marcos for the fraud, which he called "disturbing," Reagan said that there may have been fraud "on both sides."
At the time, I was working for Secretary of State George Shultz as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and I shared Shultz's dismay at the president's comments. For more than two years, with the president's support, we had carefully pressed Marcos for reform. Reagan himself once cited Lord Acton's famous dictum, that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," while speaking of Marcos. Nevertheless Reagan's unfortunate comment about fraud on "both sides" threatened to put the United States on the wrong side at a critical moment.
Fortunately, Shultz managed to convince the president that he had made a serious mistake. On Feb. 15, the White House issued a new statement: "The elections were marred by widespread fraud and violence perpetrated largely by the ruling party." The following day, Marcos and Aquino each claimed victory. On Feb. 22, when Marcos ordered the arrest of two key reformers, as many as a million Filipinos poured into EDSA Square in Manila to block the arrests in a dramatic demonstration of "people power."
Reagan's final message to Marcos was delivered two days later, when the president's close friend, Sen. Paul Laxalt, warned that Reagan opposed any use of force against the crowds and urged him "to cut and cut clean." The next day, Marcos left the Philippines.
As an undersecretary of defense in George H.W. Bush's administration, I witnessed a replay of the Philippine scenario on Aug. 19, 1991, when reactionary forces in the Soviet Union attempted a coup against Soviet President Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Bush was initially very cautious: uncertain about the facts and reluctant to interfere or to alienate a possible successor to Gorbachev.
Responding early that morning, the president refused to condemn the coup, calling it merely "a disturbing development." He expressed only lukewarm support for Gorbachev and even less for Yeltsin, and neither was among the world leaders that he tried to contact about the crisis. He seemed focused on working with the new Soviet team, hoping that their leader, Gennady Yanayev, was committed to "reform."
Although Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had argued consistently for the United States to support the peaceful aspirations of the Russians, Ukrainians and other Soviet peoples, it was Yeltsin -- with a powerful personal letter -- who persuaded Bush to abandon equivocation and oppose the coup. By late afternoon, the White House had reversed course, condemning the coup attempt as "misguided and illegitimate." Bush then called Yeltsin to assure him of his support.
No two situations are identical. But the reform the Iranian demonstrators seek is something that we should be supporting. In such a situation, the United States does not have a "no comment" option. Coming from America, silence is itself a comment -- a comment in support of those holding power and against those protesting the status quo.
It would be a cruel irony if, in an effort to avoid imposing democracy, the United States were to tip the scale toward dictators who impose their will on people struggling for freedom. And if we appear so desperate for negotiations that we will abandon those who support our principles, we weaken our own negotiating hand.
That does not mean that we need to pick sides in an Iranian election or claim to know its result. Obama could send a powerful message simply by placing his enormous personal prestige behind the peaceful conduct of the demonstrators and their demand for reform -- exactly the kind of peaceful, democratic change that he praised in his speech in Cairo.
Like the rest of the world, President Obama must have been surprised by the magnitude of the protests in Iran. Iranians are protesting not just election fraud but also the growing abuses of the Iranian people by a dictatorial regime. Now is not the time for the president to dig in to a neutral posture. It is time to change course.
Paul Wolfowitz, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was deputy secretary of defense from 2001 to 2005.