President Obama, be careful what you wish for; it may come true.

Two weeks ago President Obama's Cairo speech lit a spark in the Muslim world, which Iranian demonstrators are now fanning. Obama may not have expected his call for reform to ignite as quickly as it seems to have in Iran, but now that it has started, he cannot walk away from it. Neither can he move to embrace it too openly, for fear the hardliners in Iran use it to paint the movement as an American plot.

But Obama should make a statement at least as strong as French President Sarkozy's last weekend condemning violence against the demonstrators and calling for freedom of expression. Obama should ramp up the programming on Radio Farda (Radio Free Europe for Iran). His administration should send out spokesman to news programs throughout the Muslim world, especially Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. And if nothing else, Obama should at least start wearing a green tie as a symbol of unity with the demonstrators.

Why? Because symbols matter and, in the war for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, words matter, too. President Obama needs to give the Iranian reform movement the same kind of encouragement President Reagan gave the Polish trade union movement in its infancy.

Today no one remembers, but on March 30, 1981 President Reagan gave a nod of encouragement to the nascent Solidarity movement speech he gave to the AFL-CIO.

"As union members and as concerned citizens of the world, we watch with great interest the struggle of our fellow workers in Poland....The Polish workers stand as sentinels on behalf of universal human principles, and they remind us that on this good Earth, the people will always prevail."

President Reagan was shot just a few minutes after delivering that speech, in an assassination attempt, and these words were lost in the swirl of events. But they were not lost on the Polish workers. They were the thread that ultimately unraveled the entire Soviet Empire.

Interestingly, the arguments against Obama doing anything are eerily reminiscent of those I heard as a member of the Reagan administration in the early 1980s:

  • We don't want the President to say anything because it might discredit the movement;
  • We can't risk openly criticizing the government for fear it will stiffen their spine for arms control negotiations down the road;
  • We don't want to stir the pot for fear it will cause instability in their country.
  • We don't want to give the reformers false hope that we will intervene militarily.

Despite these dire warnings, Reagan's statements of support had just the opposite effect. They didn't discredit the Solidarity Movement, they gave it's founders hope. They didn't lessen the willingness of Soviet leaders to negotiate with Reagan over arms reductions, if anything they strengthened his hand. They didn't give false hope to the Polish workers that they should expect American military intervention on their behalf, it was clear they were on their own. But they did cause some temporary instability which is what happens when old regimes are shaken from within.

No one is suggesting that President Obama send in the tanks not only would that be militarily impossible, it would be counterproductive. What President Obama should do, however, is follow up what he started in Cairo. Because, President Obama, you be careful what you wish for it may come true.

Kathleen Troia "K.T. "McFarland served in national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan adminstrations.