One evening not many years ago, we fell into a conversation about the heroes of the Cold War with Stephen S. Rosenfeld, who had recently retired as editorial page editor of the Washington Post. When we proffered the name of President Reagan, Mr. Rosenfeld cocked an eye and offered in return the name of Sakharov. Mr. Rosenfeld didn't gainsay Reagan's achievements. But it was important, he said, to remember that being a hero was much harder when one risked being thrown into the dungeons.
We thought of that wisdom as news came in over the wires of President Bush's decision to enter the fray publicly in respect of Akbar Ganji, now nearing death from a hunger strike in Evin prison at Tehran. The president, it turns out, understands the point Mr. Rosenfeld was making in a profound way. The White House statement characterized Mr. Ganji, a journalist who has repeatedly gone to prison for his protests in support of free speech, as "demonstrating that he is willing to die for his right to express his opinion."
The president's demarche represents a sharp escalation in his public diplomacy against the regime of the mullahs. He called for the regime to release Mr. Ganji "immediately and unconditionally and to allow him access to medical assistance." He called for all supporters of human rights to take up Mr. Ganji's cause and, in a calculated move, called on the United Nations to take up the case. Given the predicament that Secretary-General Annan is in, Mr. Bush's suggestion could almost be seen as a life-line of an assignment for the secretary-general.
Mr. Bush's statement is all the more dramatic for the fact that Mr. Ganji's case had heretofore, as our Eli Lake reports from Washington today, attracted little attention in Western capitals, though not, we don't mind saying, for lack of effort by Mr. Lake, who has been pounding the keys for weeks on this story. This is because Mr. Ganji has become in recent months both a symbol and an architect of a democratic movement in Iran that will not be satisfied with the kind of sham election Iran has just held but seeks, instead, to mobilize a democratic uprising in the tradition of Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel.
What Mr. Bush understands is that while America has many allies in the global war against Islamic terrorism, none is more vital than the vast population of Iran, a population of millions of individuals who aspire to nothing less than the kind of liberty that the civilized world is fighting for and that is - as Mr. Bush has pointed out with an eloquence matched by few if any previous occupants of the White House - the inalienable right of all people, wherever they live on the planet.
Mr. Ganji believes he can achieve his goal through civil disobedience and without violence against a regime that has been a fountainhead of Islamic extremist terrorism since it seized power in 1979. It is no small thing that one brave man, starving himself close to death in a desolate cell inside one of the most notorious prisons on the globe, has inspired thousands of his countrymen and won the attention of the most powerful man on the planet. The alliance is vital to this struggle, and Mr. Bush knew what he was doing when he put out the statement, "Mr. Ganji, please know that as you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."