Yearning for Freedom? How “Our” Enemies are Really Viewed by Their People

It seems that foreign leaders who are presented to us as “our” enemies are often better described as the enemies of our ruling elite (I will refer to them as EREs for short), who invite us to share their enmity.  The practice normally involves depicting such leaders as dictatorial and overwhelmingly hated by their own people.  While these portrayals are by no means wholly false – for instance, few would argue that Kim Jong-Un is not a dictator - I use the Iranian and Ukrainian cases in suggesting that EREs are often more popular than we typically imagine, in some cases more so than our own leaders (which doesn’t say a whole lot – after all, Congress’s approval rating dropped to an all-time low of 9% last year).[i]

Why might this matter?  When contemplating intervention, our cost-benefit analysis will be dangerously distorted if we falsely assume that our designated enemy is loathed by his own people.  We may pay dearly for the mistake of underestimating popular resistance to our intervention.

A caveat is in order regarding my use of public opinion analysis.  As the following table shows, it appears that people in countries where human rights are highly repressed are somewhat less likely of expressing critical views of their governments when taking surveys.

Average Percentage of Population Expressing Confidence in Government

Countries with Low Repression
Countries with Moderate Repression
Countries with High Repression
Sources: World Values Survey (most recent wave of series available online),

China is an excellent example.  By most measures, it's a highly repressive country, and yet a seemingly unrealistic 97% of the population recently had "quite a lot" or a "great deal" of confidence in their government.  This “confidence inflation” could be due to such factors as a mistrust of survey researchers, coupled with the fear of being exposed as a government critic, or ignorance of life outside one’s repressive bubble because of government restrictions on access to foreign media.[ii]

Nevertheless, the correlation between repression and confidence in government isn’t particularly strong or statistically significant, perhaps because of the anonymity of the surveys and the option of not answering sensitive questions.  Still, it would be irresponsible of me not to address this issue before proceeding.

Is Iran in the Midst of Another Revolution?

In the event of a military strike against Iran toppling the theocratic regime, its backers will likely promote it under the pretense of bringing “democracy” to the country.  And I’ve long assumed that Iranians would ecstatically welcome such change.  Through exposure to mainstream media coverage, as well as personal discussions with Iranians living in the diaspora, I came to believe that Iranians are yearning for such a change.  Then I looked at public opinion data.

After analyzing results from two surveys conducted in Iran by the Western-based global research project, the World Values Survey, I’ve concluded that Iranians have been more content with their political system than we’ve been led to believe.  Indeed, in some respects, Iranians appeared to be more satisfied than their American counterparts.  The table below shows that while Americans expressed greater confidence in their police and judiciary, Iranians were more confident in their legislature and government (although it must be pointed out that confidence dropped substantially over the course of five years).

Confidence in Political Institutions, in Iran and the U.S.

Iran (2000)
US (1999)
Iran (2005)
US (2006)
Justice System

   Source: World Values Survey

More recently, the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) analyzed multiple polls conducted around the time of the controversial 2009 Iranian presidential election.  It reported that “large majorities [said] they are satisfied with the current system, and the system by which authorities are elected.”  As in the World Values Surveys, Iranians were also asked about their confidence in various political institutions.  While the results below aren’t directly comparable to those displayed above, they do reinforce the sense that “regime change” has not been in high demand in Iran.

On the Situation in “Liberated” Ukraine

The recently ousted Victor Yanukovych was (and still is?) Ukraine’s democratically elected president, chosen in what the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe called “a transparent and honest election”.  Although less than half of Ukrainians, on average, “[supported] the activity of Viktor Yanukovych”, a plurality had on the main preferred him over others, according to the Razumkov Center.[iii] 

As a side note, Yanukovych’s average job approval was just one point below President Obama’s (48%).  Does this mean that we are just one percentage point away from becoming justified in rioting, taking over government buildings, and killing police officers?  Of course not.[iv]  Yet many of us seemed to have few qualms about siding with protesters who were doing just that in Independence Square.

Since Yanukovych fled the country, Ukraine has lost Crimea to Russia - with whom U.S. relations are worsening over the unfolding crisis - and the situation throughout the rest of the East is rapidly deteriorating.  Evidently, not everyone is sharing Yulia Marushevska’s enthusiasm for Ukraine’s “liberation”. We could have foreseen these developments if we didn’t take our elite’s narratives for granted.  It is my hope that we will learn from such experiences and, accordingly, put pressure on our leaders to adopt a more honest and responsible foreign policy towards Iran and other EREs.

Amir Azarvan

Amir Azarvan is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College. He currently serves on the Executive Committee of the American Solidarity Party, and blogs (occasionally) at Amirica.

[i] Click here for my discussion on Syrian public attitudes towards President Bashar al-Assad.

[ii] It’s worth adding that nationalism and opposition to what is perceived as foreign imperialism might unite people behind an otherwise generally reviled regime.

[iii] The Razumkov Center is a non-governmental public policy think tank described by the Washington Post as a “top research institute”.

[iv] Although supporters of Cliven Bundy believe that they can settle their disagreements with the federal government through the barrel of a gun. 

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