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History should be cited, not shortsighted

Nothing gets the foreign correspondents' blood flowing like mass rallies in the streets of one of the world's great dictatorships. Let's face it, we all have a little John Reed in us (or Malcolm Muggeridge, if you prefer), hoping to be there to write the first draft of history, the way Reed did in his account of the Bolshevik Revolution ("Ten Days that Shook the World") and Muggeridge did in his exposure of Stalin's Ukrainian famine in the 1930s.

So the fair-minded reader has to excuse the occasional flight of historical fancy from a correspondent wading into the thick of an event like the Tehran protests. Certainly it's fair to point out, as the Washington Times and just about everyone else has, that the protests are the largest since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

But making mischief with history proves irresistable to some. Wall Street Journal columnist Brett Stevens, angered by Obama’s apology to Iranians for the coup the U.S. engineered against their elected president during the Eisenhower administration, has this to say about the current unrest:

"But the better Eisenhower parallel is with Hungary in 1956. Then as now a popular uprising coalesced around a figure (Imre Nagy in Hungary; Mir Hossein Mousavi in Iran), who had once been a creature of the system. Then as now it was buoyed by inspiring American rhetoric about freedom and democracy coming over Voice of America airwaves.And then as now the administration effectively turned its back on the uprising when U.S. support could have made a difference. Hungary would spend the next 33 years in the Soviet embrace. One senses a similar fate for Iran."

This old saw presumes that the United States, which at the time was frantically attempting to prevent the Suez Crisis from turning into World War III with the Soviet Union, should simply have ignored that risk and intervened in Hungary, a landlocked nation and member of the Warsaw Pact located 540 miles from the nearest NATO unit in West Berlin. Hmmm….

The blogosphere, as usual, does the mainstream press one better. This from CanadaFreePress, a conservative outlet which was trying to use history to accuse Obama of appeasement:

"Just as going to the Reichstag in 1939 to inform the Nazi regime of the superiority of the Aryan race would not have done anything to prevent war, but rather such a blatant show of weakness would have helped bring it on, Obama’s Cairo speech has served as a signal to the tyrannies of the Muslim world, that the United States is now in an inferior position vis a vis them."

The problem with that one, of course, is that Hitler burned down the Reichstag in 1933. In fact, a more intelligent application of the Reighstag might have been to call the fixing of the Iranian election “Ahmadinejad’s Reichstag,” since consolidating the power of a megalomaniacal anti-Semite was involved in both cases.

Some references to history seem more fair-minded. Tiananmen, on the other hand, arguably strike an appropriate note. Both Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the ultimate political victim of Tiananmen, then-PRC leader Zhao Ziyang, who tried to halt the military crackdown, were products of their respective revolutions. In both cases, euphoria encouraged by outside events (the collapse of European communism in 1989, Obama's Cairo speech in 2009) helped drive events forward.

The tech angle also helps. Many have noted in recent days that, as the New York Times' ReadandWrite blog noted, Twitter is the CNN of Tehran.

But even the Tiananmen analogy can be overdone. China's crackdown — at this writing at least — was far, far more brutal.

Hijacking history in such instances is a stock and trade of the essayist (and the blogger) John Podhoretz, the conservative impresario, writes in blog post dubbed "Tehran Tiananmen" that should the mullahs crush Iran's street protests, "there will be no pretending any longer that Iran’s regime isn’t a unified, hardline, irridentist, and enormously dangerous one."

In fact, quite the opposite. Like China, Iran has grown into a regional power which cannot be ignored. This is not Cuba on the Persian Gulf, and the United States is not in a position to hermetically seal its borders. Oil rich, technologically sophisticated, and with no small amount of sympathy around the Arab and wider Islamic world, Iran can, in fact, "get away with it." Sometimes, reality sucks. But if history tells us anything, it's that ignoring reality is the best way to ensure grave mistakes.

See here for an overview of local reaction around the world.