Special Report

Obama Is No Reagan: The Polish Lesson Ignored in Iran

Iranian cry for freedom received with miserable inadequacy by the White House.

By 6.18.09

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Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan.

One need look no further than President Obama's cautiously timid response to the demands of freedom from Iranians. Contrast this with Reagan's response to similar demands from Poles in the 1980s and the miserable inadequacy of the Obama foreign policy is thrust into a stark and shameful relief.

When Reagan took office in January of 1981, Poland had been a Soviet satellite for almost four decades. The American foreign policy establishment had long since settled into an acceptance of moral equivalency between the United States and the Communists. The policy was acted out in a thousand different ways ranging from so-called "détente" (a relaxing of tensions) to a vast, arcane arms control process which over time had substituted the process itself instead of the unconditional victory of freedom as America's chief foreign policy goal.

Reagan had campaigned on a completely different idea, a very old principle when dealing with an adversary. He phrased it this way to his first national security advisor, Richard Allen: "We win, they lose." It was this goal that Reagan sought, and thus caused him to speak bluntly about America's adversary in the Cold War. An "Evil Empire" is how he early-on famously described the Soviet Union, completely horrifying the Obama-like striped-pants set in the State Department and Establishment foreign policy circles. When the Soviet Ambassador made an early call on the new Reaganized State Department he was prevented from the cozy physical access to the building previous administrations had granted him. In times past he was driven into the basement garage and then rode a private elevator to the seventh floor, the location of the Secretary of State's office. He was the only diplomat in all of Washington accorded this special privilege. The rest -- some 150 ambassadors -- had to be driven to the main entrance, walk through the State Department public lobby and take the public elevator. This practice ceased with the Soviet Ambassador's very first visit to the newly Reaganized State Department.

Change was at hand, and the Ambassador -- his limo driver forced to quite publicly back out of the garage and go around to the main entrance in full view of the press -- was not happy.

One of the very first items that arose on Reagan's watch was the rising demand for freedom from the Polish people. On January 21, his first full day in the Oval Office, word reached the White House that a young shipyard worker and union leader named Lech Walesa had informed the Communist government of Poland he had called a series of strikes in four Polish cities, beginning the next day. Within 24 hours hundreds of thousands of Poles in ten cities -- not four -- were publicly defying the Polish Communist dictator, General Wojciech Jaruzelski.

A fight for freedom was on -- and Ronald Reagan had zero intention of standing on the sidelines.

"In my speeches and press conferences, I deliberately set out to say some frank things about the Russians, to let them know there were some new fellows in Washington who had a realistic view of what they were up to and weren't going to let them keep it up." At his very first press conference he answered a question about whether the Soviets could be trusted. "I said the answer to that question could be found in the writings of Soviet leaders: It had always been their philosophy that it was moral to lie or cheat…"

Liberals all over Washington paled. This, they insisted, was no way to conduct diplomacy. One just does not say these things in public. But Reagan had only just begun.

As Walesa and his fellow Poles demanded the most basic of human liberties, Moscow responded by sending troops on maneuvers along the Polish border, then installing a military government with instructions to stop Walesa in his tracks.

Distinctly unlike Obama's reaction to the demonstrators filling the streets of Iran, Reagan looked at similar crowds in Poland and said the sight was "thrilling." Said Reagan: "I wanted to be sure we did nothing to impede this process and everything we could to spur it along."

And so he did. In a stiff note to Soviet boss Leonid Brezhnev, Reagan said that if the Russians kept up their thuggish response to Poland they "could forget any new nuclear arms agreement." Gone too would be better trade relations, and in their place would be the "harshest possible economic sanctions" if they even thought of invading Poland as they had done with Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Hungary in 1956.

The Russians responded. In December, Reagan later recalled, without warning they shut down the Polish borders, shut off communications with the outside world, arrested Walesa and his fellow leaders of Solidarity (the union Walesa led), and imposed martial law.

Almost immediately Reagan was told the stunning news that the Polish Ambassador to the United States and his wife wished to defect. Hesitating not a second, Reagan made certain that American authorities got to the Ambassador before the KGB and "spirited him away to a safe place." Reagan wrote this in his diary at the time:

I took a stand that this may be the last chance in our lifetime to see a change in the Soviet Empire's colonial policy re Eastern Europe. We should take a stand and tell them unless and until martial law is lifted in Poland, the prisoners were released and negotiations resumed between Walesa and the Polish government, we would quarantine the Soviets and Poland with no trade or communications across their borders. Also tell our NATO allies and others to join us in such sanctions or risk an estrangement from us. A TV speech is in the works.

The now-defected Polish Ambassador was invited to the Oval Office. It was the direct opposite of the response from the Ford White House when the great Russian dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn arrived in the U.S. and an Oval Office meeting with President Ford was rejected for fear of antagonizing the Soviets. Reagan said the Ambassador and his wife "had looks of desperation…mixed with relief. Their faces brightened when I told them I welcomed them to America as genuine Polish patriots….It was an emotional moment…and left me with more disgust than ever for the evil men in the Kremlin who believed they had the right to hold an entire nation in captivity. Subsequently, I learned Ambassador Spasowski had been condemned to death by the generals who ruled Poland."

After the meeting was over, Reagan went back to writing what was supposed to be a Christmas message, deciding to use the occasion to send another message altogether to the Soviets, condemning them outright for their conduct in Poland: "We can't let this revolution against Communism fail without offering a hand," he wrote that day in his diary. "We may never have an opportunity like this in our lifetime."

Christmas or not, Reagan proceeded to write Brezhnev about the "recent events in Poland." Warned the President: "Attempts to suppress the Polish people-either by the Polish army or police acting under Soviet pressure, or through even more direct use of the Soviet military force -- certainly will not bring about long term stability in Poland and could unleash a process neither you nor we could fully control." Reagan said the Soviets were encouraging "political terror, mass arrests and bloodshed" and they must either halt this behavior or "we will travel a different path."

On Christmas morning, Reagan had a heated, angry reply from Brezhnev. Furious, he accused the President of "defaming our social and state system, our internal order." It was a charge, Reagan said, "to which I pleaded guilty." The rest of the response from the Soviet leader was a rant. An angry Brezhnev railed about "attempts to dictate your will to other states.." The Soviet Union "repudiates the claims of anyone to interfere in the events occurring in Poland…It is your Administration that has already done enough to disrupt or at the very least undermine everything positive which was achieved at the cost of great effort by previous American administrations in the relations between our countries." Brezhnev also fumed over "the general tone" of Reagan's letter, snapping that it "is not the way in which leaders of such powers as the Soviet Union and the United States should talk with each other…"

Reagan's response? "What a good Christmas present…I'd made my point to Brezhnev."

By New Year's Day a steely Reagan was announcing sanctions against both Poland and the Soviet Union. Negotiations on a long-term grain-sale agreement were halted. Flights into the United States by the Soviet airline Aeroflot were banned by the Reagan Administration. An embargo was imposed on American-made products critical to the Soviet Union, beginning with pipe-laying equipment needed desperately for the construction of the trans-Siberian gas pipeline.

The Europeans bucked at this latter penalty. "The reaction of some of our allies suggested that money spoke louder to them than principle," Reagan said. He ignored them, saying tartly: "There was a lot of talk about not having a set to with our allies. I firmly said to hell with it."

History records that Reagan's decision to take a strong stand for Polish freedom -- and bringing down the Communist system itself -- was the right one. There was nothing timid about his behavior. Indeed, his firm signals were consistent throughout whether he was writing to Leonid Brezhnev, shutting off the once-privileged access of the Soviet Ambassador to the State Department, helping the Polish Ambassador to defect and then making a point of greeting him in the Oval Office or making clear his support for Lech Walesa and the Polish workers of Solidarity. He used every tool at his disposal to push the Communist government of Poland to collapse. And he succeeded.

Lech Walesa went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize and later become the freely elected President of a democratic Poland. In 2007, Walesa's successor as President of Poland traveled to the Reagan Library to present Nancy Reagan, who accepted on behalf of her late husband, The Order of the White Eagle, the oldest and highest honor within the gift of the Polish people. Today one can visit Ronald Reagan Square in Krakow, a Reagan statue is planned for Warsaw and Reagan streets and parks dot the country. He is considered, in the words of the Polish president, the "architect of democracy."

This is a lesson that one realizes the Obama White House simply doesn't have the courage to embrace. As over a million Iranians fill the streets of Tehran, the message from this President of the United States is that he is afraid to be seen as "meddling" -- precisely the charge Reagan faced down from Brezhnev. Instead Obama backs away from standing up for freedom, saying (as if Iran were a free country): "It is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran's leaders will be. We respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran." He does say he is "deeply troubled."

As those Iranians who seek freedom are literally shot dead in the streets, Obama observes cautiously that "the democratic process, free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent -- all those are universal values and need to be respected." Instead of dealing with the mullahs of Iran in the fashion Reagan dealt with Brezhnev and the Polish Communist puppets, Obama refers deferentially to Ayatollah ali Khamenei, as the "Supreme Leader." Not from this president will you hear as one did from Reagan that this latest thuggish leader is capable of lying and cheating -- an amazing thought when the subject at issue is a fraudulent election and the serious potential of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

What must the Lech Walesa's of Iran think as they bravely twitter back and forth their demands for human liberty? Twittering and blogging inside Iran suddenly demands the same kind of courage Walesa displayed as a young Polish shipyard worker. What can those Iranian protestors -- the lineal descendants of those Polish Solidarity workers -- possibly think as they demand the same human liberties Ronald Reagan went out of his way to make a reality in Poland? Only to find that this time there is no Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office but rather a timid man who responds to desperate pleas for human freedom in the cautious and precise tones of a law professor?

Both the American and Iranian people are learning Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan.

Dangerously, the rest of the world is learning it too. This does not bode well.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.