In this June 12, 1987 file picture, U.S. President Ronald Reagan acknowledges the applause after speaking to an audience in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

In this June 12, 1987 file picture, U.S. President Ronald Reagan acknowledges the applause after speaking to an audience in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. AP Photo/Ira Schwartz

One of the Most Damaging Myths of American Foreign Policy

U.S. leaders should bear in mind that imposing sanctions and threatening war rarely strengthen human rights. Oftentimes, it's the reverse.

Last week, Akbar Ganji wrote one of the most important essays published since the signing of the framework nuclear deal with Iran earlier this month. It’s partly important because of who Ganji is. Imprisoned in 2001 for accusing Iranian officials of orchestrating the murder of government critics, he penned a manifesto from jail calling for Iran to replace theocracy with democracy. After being released and leaving Iran, he launched a hunger strike on behalf of Iranian political prisoners in 2009. He’s been called Iran’s “preeminent political dissident.”

But it’s also important because of what Ganji says. In the essay, he calls the framework deal “a great victory for Iran and Iranians, if we look at it from a democracy angle.” Why? Because “when a nation such as Iran is threatened by the US and Israel for over two decades, and suffers from the most crippling economic sanctions in history, democracy becomes an impossible dream for its people, who live instead in terror and fear of war.” If the United States and its allies “are truly interested in the development of democracy in Iran,” he continues, “they should set aside military threats and economic sanctions. Peace and economic well-being is directly linked with democracy.”

In those sentences, Ganji challenges one of the most damaging myths in modern American foreign policy: that via war and cold war, America promotes freedom.

As with so much else involving today’s GOP, that myth is connected to the myth of Ronald Reagan. As hawks tell it, Reagan entered the White House in 1981, built up the American military, sent arms to anti-communist rebels, refused to negotiate arms-control deals, called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” and, presto, the Berlin Wall fell. It was America’s escalation of the Cold War that liberated Eastern Europe.

The problem with this story is that it ignores everything that happened between 1984 and 1989. In 1984, Reagan—alarmed that a NATO military exercise called Able Archer had brought the U.S. and U.S.S.R. close to accidental war, and worried that his bellicose policies were hurting his chances of reelection—began working to de-escalate the Cold War. “During my first years in Washington,” Reagan wrote in his memoirs, “I think many of us in the administration took it for granted that the Russians, like ourselves, considered it unthinkable that the United States would launch a first strike against them. But the more experience I had with Soviet leaders and other heads of state who knew them, the more I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike. …Well, if that was the case, I was even more anxious to get a top Soviet leader in a room alone and try to convince him we had no designs on the Soviet Union and Russians had nothing to fear from us.” In January 1984, Reagan gave a speech declaring that, “Neither we nor the Soviet Union can wish away the differences between our two societies and our philosophies, but we should always remember that we do have common interests and the foremost among them is to avoid war and reduce the level of arms.” After meeting Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko that September, the White House announced that, “The United States respects the Soviet Union’s status as a superpower … and we have no wish to change its social system.”

All this helps explain why, within hours of learning that Mikhail Gorbachev had become the Soviet Union’s new leader in March 1985, Reagan invited him to meet without preconditions. The White House dispatched Vice President George H.W. Bush to Moscow to declare that, “We should seek to rid the world of the threat or use of force in international relations.” When Reagan and Gorbachev met that fall, they talked for almost five hours and Reagan whispered to his Soviet counterpart, “I bet the hard-liners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.” By 1987, Reagan had signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, the most sweeping arms-control deal of the Cold War. His rhetoric toward the Soviet Union also radically changed. It’s true that in June 1987 Reagan famously called on Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall. But when asked the month before whether he still considered the Soviet Union an evil empire, Reagan replied, “No, I was talking about another time and another era.”

Reagan, in other words, dramatically de-escalated the Cold War long before he knew Gorbachev would let Eastern Europe go free and at a time when prominent conservatives were literally calling him Neville Chamberlain for signing the INF deal. And while it’s possible that Reagan’s first-term military buildup helped bring Gorbachev to power, there’s a stronger historical consensus that Reagan’s second-term willingness to defuse Cold War tensions helped Gorbachev dismantle the Soviet empire. In the words of longtime Soviet ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin, “If Reagan had stuck to his hard-line policies in 1985 and 1986 … Gorbachev would have been accused by the rest of the Politburo of giving everything away to a fellow who doesn’t want to negotiate. We would have been forced to tighten our belts and spend even more on defense.”

The lesson isn’t that American leaders should never criticize dictatorships. They should. But they should also remember that imposing sanctions and threatening war rarely strengthen human rights. It’s usually the reverse. First, threats of war make it easier for dictators to discredit their opponents. In Ganji’s words, “The Islamic Republic’s dictatorship used the threat of military action [from Israel and the United States] to increase its repression of the Iranian people, accusing the opposition of treason and being turncoats.” Second, sanctions tend to impoverish the very middle class best able to create and sustain democratic change. Sometimes, as in apartheid South Africa, dissidents endorse sanctions anyway. But even in South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress only endorsed sanctions aimed at improving human rights. Most of the sanctions imposed on Iran make no pretense of that; they’re simply designed to keep Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. Third, and most obviously, America’s wars themselves often threaten human rights. In the midst of genocide, “humanitarian war,” coupled with diplomacy and long-term peacekeeping, can sometimes bring peace, as it did in Bosnia and Kosovo. But more often, bombing an oppressed people simply makes their plight worse. Iranians, wrote Ganji, “know the fates of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen—nations that were either invaded by the United States, bombed back to the Medieval age (Libya) or destroyed by a sectarian war instigated by US allies in the Middle East (Syria). None of these nations has become a democratic state. The state of human rights in all of these nations is far worse than before their crippling wars.”

Obama’s openings to Iran and Cuba offer a unique opportunity to make plain that American military and economic aggression damages rather than empowers people struggling for freedom. Many high-profile Iranian dissidents, while urging the United States not to ignore Tehran’s human-rights abuses, have welcomed the U.S.-Iranian nuclear talks. Last year, when the U.S.-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran surveyed 22 prominent Iranian human-rights and civil-society activists, every one endorsed the negotiations that have now produced the framework nuclear deal. When news of the deal broke, people in Tehran rushed into the streets to celebrate. Something similar is happening in Cuba, where the Obama administration is trying to end another long-standing cold war. According to a Univision/Fusion poll, carefully designed to avoid government tampering, more than 90 percent of Cubans support diplomatic “normalization” with the United States and the lifting of America’s trade embargo against the island.

In the face of all this evidence, why do American hawks—who have long professed their solidarity with the Iranian and Cuban people—still overwhelmingly oppose Obama’s diplomatic openings? Because improving human rights isn’t their primary motivation. After all, when the United States violates human rights—by torturing alleged terrorists or killing innocents in drone strikes—most hawks (John McCain being an honorable exception) yawn. Nor do they exhibit much concern about human-rights violations by U.S. allies like Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

For many prominent hawks, human rights isn’t an end in itself. It’s a quiver in the arsenal of American power—a way to accentuate the moral difference between the United States and its enemies. It’s an emotional language that rouses Americans to support hawkish policies when the sterile discourse of power politics doesn’t work.

Akbar Ganji isn’t fooled. Let’s hope most Americans aren’t either.