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In Iran and China, protesters plead for liberty. Where is the leader of the free world?

America’s president should use his bully pulpit to give the dissidents strength and courage.

Iranians protested the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police.Associated Press

Time magazine hails Iran’s courageous women as the “Heroes of 2022.”

Why can’t President Biden do the same?

Ever since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of Iran’s “morality police” after being arrested for wearing her hijab improperly, tens of thousands of Iranians nationwide have taken to the streets in protest. Women and schoolgirls have played a prominent role in the demonstrations. The government’s response has been brutal — more than 18,000 protesters have reportedly been arrested and close to 500 killed.

Yet Iranians haven’t backed down. The protests have become the most sustained uprising since the Islamic Republic was created 43 years ago. The dissidents are demanding not only justice for Amini’s death and an end to the mandatory headscarf but sweeping reform of the repressive theocratic regime itself.


In such circumstances, the leader of the world’s oldest and most influential democracy should be using his bully pulpit to buoy Iran’s brave protesters — openly, repeatedly, loudly, and consistently. To be sure, Biden administration officials have expressed support for the Iranian people; in October the White House imposed sanctions on 14 Tehran officials. But words of uplift from the president himself — the highest form of currency in US public diplomacy — have been few and far between.

In a speech to the UN General Assembly shortly after the demonstrations began, Biden uttered one sentence of support: “We stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights.” That was his only official statement on the protests. In the months since, Biden’s only other words of encouragement have been some offhand remarks at a community college and a campaign rally. In both cases, the words were ad-libbed after audience members displayed the message “Free Iran.” At the rally, Biden said: “Don’t worry, we’re going to free Iran — they’re going to free themselves pretty soon.” The White House spokesman promptly downplayed those words, telling reporters that Biden was merely “expressing solidarity” with the protesters.


When it comes to China, he hasn’t even gone that far.

Since Nov. 25, anti-government protests on a scale unseen since 1989 — the year of the Tiananmen Square massacre — have erupted in more than 30 Chinese cities. The uproar was triggered by a fire that killed at least 10 people who couldn’t escape their apartment because of China’s fanatically stringent “zero-COVID” measures. The spontaneous demonstrations — incredibly daring, given the regime’s pervasive high-tech surveillance — rapidly grew into calls for an end to repression. Students have been holding up sheets of blank paper as a symbol of censorship. “Democracy and rule of law!” some have chanted. “Freedom of expression!”

And Biden’s reaction to this grassroots condemnation of Xi Jinping’s totalitarian regime? Crickets. A White House spokesman would say only that “everyone has the right to peacefully protest.” The president himself has said nothing.

All this is in keeping with the longstanding tradition of US presidents endorsing liberty, democracy, and resistance to tyranny in the abstract — but saying little or nothing when real people, sick and tired of living under dictatorship, rise up to demand the civil liberties and political freedoms that Americans take for granted.


We have witnessed this dispiriting scenario time and again.

When a million protesters flooded the streets of Hong Kong in 2019 to oppose a security law that threatened to wipe out their autonomy, President Donald Trump would say only that he was sure China and Hong Kong “will be able to work it out” and emphasized that Xi Jinping was “a friend of mine.” When a vast wave of anti-government protests swept across Iran in 2009, President Barack Obama at first said nothing and then insisted it would not be “productive” for a US president “to be seen as meddling” in Iranian affairs.

During the stunning pro-democracy uprising in China in 1989, President George H.W. Bush refused to encourage the student-led reformers. “I would encourage restraint,” he said. “I think this, perhaps, is a time for caution.” Two years later, when all eyes were focused on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Bush publicly urged Iraqis to overthrow their dictator. When long-suffering Shi’ites and Kurds answered the president’s call and launched a rebellion, however, Bush denied them the minimal assistance they would have needed to topple the Butcher of Baghdad. Saddam proceeded to massacre the resisters, as Bush baldly claimed that he “had not misled anybody” about America’s position.

This pattern has been repeated throughout the postwar era. Perhaps the most notorious example occurred in 1956, when Hungarians rose up against their Communist dictatorship. Many of them counted on the ringing support of President Dwight Eisenhower, who had vowed as a candidate to support “rollback” and “liberation” in Eastern Europe. But Eisenhower remained silent even as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to crush the rebellion.


In all these cases, American presidents have failed to understand that the United States and the free world are engaged in an ideological battle with the world’s tyrannies. They have squandered the opportunity to make a forthright case for liberal democracy — not merely to defend a bland “right to peacefully protest” but to explain why societies based on liberty, accountability, and the consent of the governed are inherently superior to rule by theocrats or communist dictators. When throngs of citizens raise their voices against oppression in countries like China and Iran, the response from the United States should be to embolden them and reinforce the legitimacy of their demands. America’s ultimate goal for those countries, after all, is not stability or quiescence. It is for them to become free.

Ending repression and upholding democracy are part of America’s mission. The United States is the only nation in history founded on the “self-evident truth” that freedom is an inalienable right. No other people has fought so hard to advance human rights and liberty beyond its own frontiers. We may forget how large America’s example looms in the imagination of the world’s oppressed — but they don’t. That’s why Hong Kong protesters sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” as they protested in 2019. Why Chinese students 20 years earlier crafted a “Goddess of Democracy” modeled on our own Statue of Liberty. Why Iranians in 2009 implored Obama to lift his voice in support of theirs.


When dissidents rise against despots, it is always in America’s interest to strengthen and encourage them. If Time magazine can proclaim the heroism of pro-freedom protesters like those in Iran, surely America’s president can too.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit https://bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter.