A Thought Experiment

By Daniel Luban

Daniel Halper writes in The Weekly Standard today:

On “The Early Show” this morning, Obama said that “what we can do is bear witness and say–to the world that the, you know, incredible demonstrations that we’ve seen is a testimony to–I think what Dr. King called the–the arc of the moral universe. It’s long but it bends towards justice.”

Perhaps this is so, but Martin Luther King didn’t “bear witness” to the civil rights movement in America–he was a courageous participant. Obama now has a choice: Will he be a courageous participant or a weak witness? Will he declare that the elections in Iran were rigged, or will he continue to say that he does not know?

As Halper is probably aware, there is one fairly significant difference between King’s relation to the civil rights movement and Obama’s relation to the current protests in Iran. King was, indeed, a “courageous participant” in the civil rights movement, but he was an American and a leader of the movement itself. Obama, by contrast, is neither an Iranian nor a leader of the Iranian protest movement — rather, he is the leader of a rival power that has a fraught history with Iran.

It is fairly obvious that the level of “participation” that would be desirable, or effective, for a homegrown civil society leader would be different from that of a rival foreign leader. But to illustrate this obvious fact more sharply, consider the following thought experiment. In 1963, as King delivers his famous speech to the March on Washington, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev delivers a public message of his own to the protesters. “We would like to tell these brave voices of freedom,” Khrushchev says, “that they have the full support and solidarity of the USSR. The Soviet Union and the United States Communist Party are ready and willing to perform any measures within our power to help our American brothers and sisters obtain their rights from this oppressive regime. And although Dr. King pretends that he holds no hostility toward the American capitalist system of government itself, and wishes only to secure the ideals of the American founding for all of its citizens, we all know that he and his supporters really yearn for complete regime change in Washington. We in Moscow will do whatever it takes to help you achieve this goal.”

Let us ignore the question of Khrushchev’s intentions here: whether he is motivated by genuine sympathy and desire to aid the civil rights marchers, or a more cynical hope of destabilizing a rival government, or a narcissistic and self-righteous wish to take credit for the marchers’ achievement in order to feel better about himself and appease his domestic critics. (And before anyone gets up in arms about “moral equivalence,” let me note than I am not equating Obama’s America and Khrushchev’s Russia, merely noting that Obama and Khrushchev occupy structurally similar positions as leaders of distrusted rival powers.)

Let us focus only on a simple tactical question: would Khrushchev’s statement aid the civil rights movement? Would it be welcomed by King and his associates? Why or why not?

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. Jim, or Daniel, thanks for all the content. Has this site chosen to bring in guests more regularly and more frequent posts as a permanent, at least for the time being? Or are we enjoying an unusual spurt of comments?

    Further, I sure would like to get some of your views of the Iran “Uprising.”

    Color me as ever skeptical of the American/CIA or British, or Israeli, not to ignore the Chinese, Russian, Indian/SCO role here? I think this is much ado about not much, at least initially.

    Seems a successful toppling of the regime wouldn’t be an achievement for the Iranians, not that the variety of choice between Mousavi and Ahmedijhad is much at all. Is it wrong to see the M camp as West facing and the A camp as East facing? Ahmedijhad seems like an earnest guy, which doesn’t say anything for his policies or effectiveness.

    The French Revolution was no achievement for the Frenchman who enjoyed 20 yrs of unrest and 20 of Napoleon. Uprisings, though I support such things generally, in such shark infested waters as Iran has all about her I am worried about the peril the average Iranian faces from within and without.

    We know the Bush administration had $Billions allocated for just this sort of rabble raising in Iran, will you please speak to this, and offer your take on facts vs propaganda?

  2. You are exactly right. But it’s a waste of time to try to throw light on these absurdities. Remember Hannity saying during the campaign saying that Obama’s ideas about striking al Qaeda in the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan meant that he was advocating an attack on a U.S. ally? There is nothing to which this sort of person will not stoop.

    It’s all about scoring points and agitating the masses. Truth, sober thought, reflection are at a discount. What am I saying? At a discount? They actually mean nothing anymore.

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