In early 1968, North Vietnam launched a series of military offensives across South Vietnam that became known as the Tet Offensive. Military experts agree that by the end of the offensive in April, the United States and South Vietnamese had beaten the North, which suffered significant casualties. Paradoxically, however, the offensive was widely perceived as a defeat for the U.S., and in fact precipitated a protracted decline in popular support for our involvement in Vietnam. The reason for this anomaly lies in the fact that television was bringing real-time images of the street fighting directly into the living and bed rooms of millions of American viewers.
This was the first example of the manner in which commercial visual communication dramatically influenced the outcome of a military conflict; a nightmare scenario in which military victory was turned to political defeat.
The power of real-time television was apparent a generation later when, at Tiananmen Square in 1989, the world witnessed a single Chinese man, armed with a plastic shopping bag, stop a Red Army tank moving against civilian protestors. Unfortunately, the Chinese government then (and now) understood the power of mass communication, and moved quickly and brutally to quell that nascent popular uprising under cover of night and with no television cameras allowed.
Now, in the streets of Iranian cities from Teheran to Isfahan, citizens by the tens of thousands are staging mass demonstrations unheard of in that country since similar, sustained uprisings toppled the Shah in 1979. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the clerical “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Khamenei — are desperately attempting to tamp down popular support for Mir Hossein Mousavi, who lost the June 12th presidential election to incumbent Ahmadinejad. However, the regime is finding its efforts undermined by cell phone cameras employed by demonstrators to record and send images of the demonstrations — and the government’s sometime harsh methods to stanch them — to friends and media around the world.
If the demonstrators and supporters of Mousavi succeed in having the recent election overturned and even perhaps in having their candidate sworn in as president, it will be the first revolution whose primary weapon was not the tank or even the TV camera, but one of the most empowering of modern inventions — the personal communication device. Despite the tight control over the population that the 30-year-old religious-based regime has maintained in Iran, it may be no match for a population of nearly 70 million, with a high percentage of young people, and which is armed with millions of cell phones, “personal digital assistants,” and laptop computers.
Meanwhile, critics of President Barack Obama are whipsawing the president because he is “not doing enough” to support the anti-government forces. Former presidential candidate John McCain last week blasted Obama for failing to speak out forcefully against the “corrupt, fraud sham of an election” that “deprived the Iranian people of their rights.” Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) has introduced a resolution.
The reality is that Obama is expressing support for the Iranian students and others demonstrating against the Iranian regime; only in a less fiery tone than critics like McCain (who joked during his campaign that we should “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”). Obama’s tactics may very well yield more than the red-meat approach — especially long term.
Loud calls for extreme action may please constituents back home, and make for popular sound bites on the Sunday talk shows. However, Obama apparently understands that behind-the-scenes actions (likely being conducted by certain agencies of the U.S. government), coupled with more measured public criticism, may reduce the chances that the Teheran regime will decide to crack down massively on the protestors, as did China 20 years ago, and snuff out a promising move toward reform.