When people protest for freedom, what can Americans do to help?
The Biden administration tried to sell the Russo-Ukraine War as a fight between autocracy and democracy, but that characterization fell flat in the Global South.
Indeed, it is not even a persuasive sell for Washington, after the president’s recent submissions to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Every U.S. administration has sacrificed principle for security, even though that trade-off often has proved false.
Nevertheless, the sight of Iranians and Chinese rising up against oppressive governments cannot help but enthrall those watching. Unfortunately, neither regime was prepared to give way. Protests continue in Iran but have failed to reach critical mass sufficient to oust the incumbent regime. In China, demonstrations quickly died away. Did the Biden administration miss an opportunity to democratize two American adversaries?
This is, in fact, a common complaint of Washington’s kettle of military hawks. The Obama administration was roundly criticized for not doing enough to advance Iran’s 2009 “Green Movement,” featuring mass demonstrations claiming election fraud. Similar complaints have been made about countries as varied as Cuba and Russia. The presumption appears to be that the president, any president, need merely whisper his command and regimes will fall.
Yet Iran 2009 suggests otherwise. Although claims of election fraud were plausible, perhaps even likely, they were not proved. Nor did those hoping for the regime’s overthrow consider the widespread backing for Islamic rule in the more traditional countryside.
Finally, the U.S. had no obvious means to foster the regime’s overthrow in the face of a brutal clerical establishment. Mere expressions of support could not change the internal balance of forces. At the extreme, attempting to provide weapons would be no easy feat and the establishment was well-armed. If the West managed to encourage a civil war, that “success” could be disastrous: Syria illustrates the huge human cost that could result.
Many of the most fervent supporters of intervention care little about democracy and human rights. Rather, they see such doctrines simply as a weapon for use against governments they dislike. During the Cold War the U.S. routinely backed authoritarian regimes of almost any character while criticizing communist states. Realpolitik may have made geopolitical sense, but it resulted in a gaggle of ugly bargains.
This bias continues today, without serious security justifications. The crimes of friendly despots, like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, infamous for the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, are ignored when convenient.
Still, Iran and China treat their people horribly (though Freedom House ranks Saudi Arabia even worse). Ousting these tyrannical leaderships seems like a worthy goal.
For instance, Jianli Yang, a Tiananmen Square survivor and founder of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, and Bradley A. Thayer, head of the Center for Security Policy’s China program, urged the “administration to boldly demonstrate support for civil society and popular movements in China, to build up human rights and, ideally, help the Chinese people to overthrow” the Chinese Communist Party.
But how? The authors suggest voicing support for the demonstrators, endorsing protests in the West, and highlighting Chinese human rights abuses. Such steps are fine and, indeed, are already followed by the human rights organizations with which the authors desire to collaborate, as well as “Western media and universities.” Anyone interested in China already should be aware of the oppression of Xi’s China, as well as his predecessors, most notably Mao Zedong. Hyping Western government support for Chinese demonstrations unfortunately could reinforce the regime’s otherwise ludicrous charge that the protests reflect outside interference.
The authors also advise friendly states to “encourage the use of technologies that allow Chinese citizens unfettered access to the internet and … assist with building civil society in China.” The first is a good idea, though tech companies are best able to develop such stratagems. The second is likely to prove a bust after Beijing’s crackdown on even the most harmless NGOs, domestic as well as foreign.
Out of all this Yang and Thayer imagine the CCP’s demise: “If the global community, led by the Biden administration, seizes this opportunity to embolden the protesters to take stronger action against the CCP, they might just build a coalition that can bring about the downfall of a repressive, aggressive regime.”
Alas, outsiders matter little to this “coalition.” And if the denizens of Zhongnanhai believe the West is promoting their overthrow, they would most likely begin with a Tiananmen Square “solution,” rather than dawdle, treating a new round of demonstrations with the relative moderation initially shown last time.
Similar sentiments have been expressed regarding Iran, though no one has come up with serious practical steps for defenestrating the bad guys.
For instance, argued Victoria Coates and Robert Greenway, of the Heritage and Hudson Institutes, respectively: “rather than assume that the protests are a lost cause, we must try to take advantage of them in the hopes that things might just turn out differently this time around.” Frank Gaffney, the Center for Security Policy’s founder, went further, writing: “America must stand with the people of Iran and help them bring down the mullahocracy that brutalizes them—and threatens us.”
The brutal regime deserves to go. But, again, what to do? The current demonstrations, though enjoying welcome longevity, remain smaller than those of 2009. The working class has not come out in great numbers. One of the critical ingredients of the 1979 overthrow of the Shah, widespread labor strikes, is missing today.
Unfortunately, outsiders cannot provide what is lacking to oust the current leadership and replace the Islamic Republic. Gaffney leaves practical steps up to the imagination. Coates and Greenway express hope that the Biden administration will “recognize that ignoring oppressed people in their fight for freedom against dictatorial U.S. adversaries is a political loser.” However, their “to do” list for overthrowing the well-entrenched Islamist regime is awfully short.
Coates and Greenway, among others, suggest licensing communications and internet firms to sell in Iran. Starlink satellite dishes are now being smuggled into the country. Breaking the information blockade should be a priority for anyone hoping to help. Alas, that’s where the authors stop.
Both governments and NGOs can help embarrass oppressive governments. The U.S. and other democratic states were able to get Iran kicked off the UN Commission on the Status of Women. But this isn’t likely to contribute to regime change. Expelling diplomats has been suggested, but then, why not kick out diplomats of Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia, plus scores of other authoritarian regimes? Anyway, it is more important to talk with dangerous adversaries than docile friends.
Finally, there is the go-to policy of sanctions. However, with Iran there is little left to do. Tehran survived Donald Trump’s economic onslaught, which his administration apparently expected to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees. Today Iran is likely to benefit from enough Chinese and Russian support, if necessary, to keep it afloat.
The world will be a better place when the Chinese and Iranian regimes disappear into history’s fabled dustbin. However, a little humility in Washington is warranted. There is not a lot that people in the West can do. There is even less that governments in the West should do.
The best way for Americans to protect human rights and democracy abroad is to live their principles at home. U.S. officials also should avoid the ostentatious hypocrisy and sanctimony that so often dominates American foreign policy — and fuels foreign tyranny and wars. Finally, good people the world over should look for practical means to help victims of oppression. Some day the Chinese and Iranian peoples will be free.