DAVID BROOKS COLUMN: Marches expose fragile regime

WASHINGTON -- Most of the time, foreign relations are kind of boring -- negotiations, communiqu?s, soporific speeches. But then, there are moments of radical discontinuity -- 1789, 1917, 1989 -- when the very logic of history flips.

WASHINGTON -- Most of the time, foreign relations are kind of boring -- negotiations, communiqués, soporific speeches. But then, there are moments of radical discontinuity -- 1789, 1917, 1989 -- when the very logic of history flips.

At these moments -- like the one in Iran right now -- change is not generated incrementally from the top. Instead, power is radically dispersed. The real action is out on the streets. The future course of events is maximally uncertain.

The fate of nations is determined by glances and chance encounters: by the looks policemen give one another as a protesting crowd approaches down a boulevard; by the presence of a spontaneous leader who sets off a chant or a song and with it an emotional contagion; by a captain who either decides to kill his countrymen or not; by a shy woman who emerges from a throng to throw herself on the thugs who are pummeling a kid prone on the sidewalk.

The most important changes happen invisibly inside peoples' heads. A nation that had seemed apathetic suddenly mobilizes. People lost in private life suddenly feel their public dignity has been grievously insulted. Webs of authority that had gone unquestioned instantly dissolve, or do not. New social customs spontaneously emerge, like the citizens of Tehran shouting hauntingly from their rooftops at night. Small gestures unify a crowd and symbolize a different future, like the moment when Mir Hussein Moussavi held hands with his wife in public.

At moments such as these, policymakers and advisers in the U.S. government almost always retreat to passivity and caution. Part of this is pure prudence. When you don't know what's happening, it's sensible to do as little as possible because anything you do might cause more harm than good.


Part of it is professional mind-set. Foreign policy experts are trained in the art of analysis, extrapolation and linear thinking. They simply have no tools to analyze moments that are nonlinear, paradigm-shifting and involve radical shifts in consciousness. As a result, they almost invariably underestimate how rapid change might be and how quickly it might come.

As Michael McFaul, a democracy expert who serves on the National Security Council once wrote: "In retrospect, all revolutions seem inevitable. Beforehand, all revolutions seem impossible."

Many of us have been dissatisfied with the legalistic calibrations of the Obama administration's response to Iran, which have been disproportionate to the sweeping events there. We've been rooting for the politicians in the administration, like Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who have been working for a more sincere and heartfelt response.

But the comments of the first few days are not that important. What's important is that the Obama administration understands the scope of what is happening. And on the big issue, my understanding is that the administration has it exactly right.

The core lesson of these events is that the Iranian regime is fragile at the core. Like all autocratic regimes, it has become rigid, paranoid, insular, insecure, impulsive, clumsy and illegitimate. The people running the regime know it, which is why the Revolutionary Guard is seeking to consolidate power into a small, rigid, insulated circle. The Iranians on the streets know it. The world knows it.

From now on, the central issue of Iran-Western relations won't be the nuclear program. The regime is more fragile than the program. The regime is more likely to go away than the program.

The central issue going forward will be the regime's survival itself. The radically insecure members of this government will make no concessions that might threaten their hold on power. The West won't be able to go back and view Iran through the old lens of engagement on nuclear issues. The nations of the West will have to come up with multitrack policies that not only confront Iran on specific issues but also try to undermine the regime itself.

This approach is like Ronald Reagan's policy toward the Soviet Union, and it is no simple thing. It doesn't mean you don't talk to the regime; Reagan talked to the Soviets. But it does mean you pursue many roads at once.


There is no formula for undermining a decrepit regime. And there are no circumstances in which the United States has been able to peacefully play a leading role in another nation's revolution. But there are many tools this nation has used to support indigenous democrats: independent media, technical advice, economic and cultural sanctions, presidential visits for key dissidents, the unapologetic embrace of democratic values, unapologetic condemnation of the regime's barbarities.

Recently, many people thought it was clever to say that elections on their own don't make democracies. But election campaigns stoke the mind, and fraudulent elections outrage the soul. The Iranian elections have stirred a whirlwind that will lead, someday, to the regime's collapse. Hastening that day is now the central goal.

What To Read Next