Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Pro-Democracy Protests Expose GOP’s Hypocrisy as Trump Remains Silent

Republicans were quick to chastise Obama but haven’t demanded that Trump do more to support democracy uprisings abroad.
August 18, 2020
Pro-Democracy Protests Expose GOP’s Hypocrisy as Trump Remains Silent
Belarus opposition supporters hold a giant former white-red-white flag of Belarus used in opposition to the government, during a demonstration in central Minsk on August 16, 2020. (SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2009, protests broke out in Iran. Millions of people marched in the streets, demanding political rights, in what came to be known as the Green Movement. Protesters were shot at. Many died. More were arrested. Most of them were tortured. The protesters—I was among them—found encouragement in the supportive messages that flowed in from leaders around the world. But the Obama administration did nothing to support us. At first, President Obama said nothing; then, after several days passed, he criticized the state violence against the protesters but didn’t even utter a word in support of our cause, instead just blandly said “we respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran.”

For years, Republicans hammered the Obama administration over it. Paul Ryan attacked the Obama administration in his vice presidential debate with Joe Biden. The moment came and passed, but that hammer kept being hit.

One critic of Obama’s response to the Green Movement was Donald Trump. “Why,” he tweeted in October 2011, did Obama “do nothing for the Iranian protesters?” And in a YouTube video posted around the same time, Trump said this:

If Obama would’ve backed the people of Iran two years ago when that county had a big, big problem—and the protesters were making headway . . . we wouldn’t have any problems in Iran. . . . That country would’ve been turned over so fast, instead he abandoned those people.

So, let’s judge Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans against their own words. How well have they encouraged democratic protesters around the world since coming into office?

In December 2017, another round of protests broke out in Iran. Smaller in numbers, those protests were much more intense and violent. (One of the leaders of the 2017 protests was handed a death sentence just last month.) The protests went on for weeks, getting more violent as time passed, getting suppressed more violently by the regime.

Two years later, in November 2019, yet another round of protests erupted in Iran. This time the protests were larger, more intense and more violent. There was real hope that something could come out of them. Friends I spoke to, who participated in the protests, said that there was a chance that the regime could fall. But the regime disconnected the internet nationally, so the protesters could not communicate with each other. Many people were killed by the security forces, including children. Several of the arrested protesters are awaiting execution.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi and Lebanese peoples protested the same regime that the Iranians were protesting: the regime in Iran. They were complaining that Iran had corrupted their politics and undermined their fragile democracies through its empowerment of proxy militias. In Lebanon, the government fell, only for a more pro-Iran government to come into power. In Iraq, the protests were crushed by an Iran proxy.

In March 2019, pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong. These protesters have been fighting for a year and are being crushed by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) security forces. Footage of Hongkongers singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and waving the U.S. Flag was seen all over media. This past June, the CCP passed and enacted the Hong Kong national security law, ending the “one country, two systems” rule that had been in effect since the British government left Hong Kong in 1997. Because of the new law, the protests are ending in a total victory for the CCP, and protesters are being arrested.

Finally, last week, mass protests erupted in Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship. They are still getting larger. Belarusians are objecting to a fraudulent presidential election. The Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, is seeking help from Vladimir Putin on the grounds that “if Belarus collapses the entire post-Soviet space will follow,” a welcomed event.

The Trump administration has done little to help any of these protests. The president has tweeted a few times about some of them. But serious action is almost entirely absent and even the lip service is perfunctory. Taiwan, Germany, Australia, and the United Kingdom have offered refugee status for Hong Kong residents, while Trump has not.

They told me if another Green Movement happened, President Hillary Clinton would let it be crushed yet again. Funny, that.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.