History lesson: Why letting go is so hard to do
"The Obama administration has been caught on its back foot, scrambling to keep up with events."
--Wall Street Journal editorial page, Feb. 1, 2011
Since the Egyptian crisis began nearly two weeks ago, President Obama has been under pressure to declare unequivocally that it is time for President Hosni Mubarak to step down. Obama has walked up to the edge -- saying the transition to representative government "must begin now." But a clean break has not yet come.
There are several reasons for this reluctance. Obama doesn't want to be seen as giving orders to another leader, particularly one who has been a loyal ally to the United States for three decades. If Mubarak rejects a personal demand, U.S. leverage will be lost. Obama also knows that other U.S. allies are watching closely, wondering if the United States would abandon them as well.
The best possible outcome -- from the U.S. strategic perspective -- is that Mubarak himself decides he has to step down sooner, and the United States is perceived to have nudged him, not sawed off the limb.
Other presidents have shared Obama's dilemma. In three recent cases of dictators being overwhelmed by popular passions, the U.S. president held on to the relationship until virtually the very last minute -- even when the crisis unfolded over a period of months. Here's what happened, drawn in part from advisers' memoirs.
The Fall of the Shah, 1979
Iran's Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi may have been a megalomaniac with feared security services, but his regime was central to American power in the Persian Gulf. As Jimmy Carter put it in a New Year's Eve toast in Tehran one year before the shah was deposed: "Iran, because of the great leadership of the shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you, your majesty, and to your leadership, and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you."
It was an unfortunate toast. Within days of Carter's remarks, demonstrations against the shah's rule began. Nine months after Carter's visit, violence erupted in Tehran's Jaleh Square and troops killed scores of demonstrators. Carter placed a call to the shah
"The president said he was calling to express his friendship for the shah and his concern about events," wrote Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security adviser, in his memoir "Power and Principle." "He wished the shah the best in resolving these problems and in being successful in his efforts to implement reforms." Carter agreed to publicly endorse the shah's efforts at reform "as strongly as possible.'
The crisis grew. On Oct. 27, the White House had the U.S. ambassador deliver another message to the shah: "The United States supports him without reservation in the present crisis." The message added the United States recognizes "the need for decisive action and leadership to restore order" and that whether he should choose to assemble a coalition government or a military government "is up to the shah. ... Whatever route he goes we will support his decision fully."
Brzezinski followed up with his own call to "make it clear to him that the president of the United States stood behind him." The shah took the hint and announced the formation of a military government. But that was not enough to stem the crisis, and the Carter administration was badly split over the right response.
Up until the shah's departure's in mid-January -- four months after the deadly shootings in Jaleh Square -- the administration discussed whether to encourage a military coup or even launch a military invasion to protect oil fields. Carter "would not cross the elusive line between strong support (which he provided the shah quite consistently) and the actual decision to embark on a bloody and admittedly uncertain course of action," Brzezinski concluded.
The Fall of Marcos, 1986
Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos was another longtime ally. His nation housed two critical U.S. military bases, and U.S. officials turned a blind eye to his high living and the corruption rampant in his government. In 1981, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush praised Marcos for his "adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic processes." President Ronald Reagan dismissed the notion that there was any non-communist alternative to Marcos. In fact, when Reagan officials took office in 1981, their mindset was that Carter had pushed dictators too hard for reform.
But in August 1983, exiled opposition politician Benigno Aquino was assassinated at Manila airport as he returned home, and domestic support for Marcos eroded. Marcos was forced to call snap presidential elections. Aquino's widow, Corazon Aquino, decided to run and drew huge crowds of supporters for the Feb. 7, 1986, election.
Election-day poll watchers reported that fraud was rampant and Aquino surely won, even though the National Assembly, controlled by Marcos, declared the incumbent president the victor by 1.5 million votes.
Meanwhile, on the day of the election, then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz had already decided that Marcos had to go, according to his memoir "Turmoil and Triumph." But he knew he faced a problem. As one of Shultz's aides put it, the president "will be inclined to call Marcos and congratulate him on his victory." Indeed, the White House initially issued a statement saying Marcos had won the election. Then, as evidence of fraud mounted, at a news conference Reagan's first instinct was to suggest both sides were equally guilty of fraud.
As the crisis grew -- with both Marcos and Aquino declaring themselves the victors -- the Reagan administration reacted cautiously and fitfully. Events took on a life of their own as two top military officials resigned, and this time the White House said their actions "strongly reinforce our concerns that the recent president elections were marred by fraud."
But the U.S. ambassador cabled back to Washington: Marcos would not resign unless Reagan asked him to do so. And he planned to take the oath of office in 48 hours.
Reagan hesitated. His chief of staff warned of another Iran. Finally, on Feb. 24, he decided to call on Marcos to resign. "But he was still deeply disturbed at the thought of the fall of a longtime friend and anti-Communist ally," Shultz wrote. "Ronald Reagan had turned the corner intellectually but not emotionally."
When the U.S. ambassador delivered the message to resign, Marcos rejected the request, telling him it was a "ridiculous conclusion." Marcos then wanted to have a significant advisory role in the new government. Finally, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) was dispatched to call Marcos and let him know he had to leave the country -- "cut and cut clean."
Reagan still felt rotten about the outcome of the crisis, which had lasted about three months. Shultz said he knew "my relations and the White House had been badly strained by the turn of events in the Philippines and my role in them."
The Fall of Suharto, 1998
Suharto, a former Indonesian general, grabbed power in his country in 1966 and proceeded to rule the world's fourth most populous nation for more than three decades, with mounting corruption and a veneer of democracy. But Indonesia was also an important ally.
When the country was hit hard by the 1997 Asian economic crisis, there were widespread fears that the far-flung nation of 13,000 islands would splinter without Suharto's guiding hand. As Asia's longest serving leader, he also had important regional influence.
President Bill Clinton's first response was to urge Suharto to stick to a path of economic reforms. He called on Jan. 8, 1998, urging Suharto to continue with his reforms and expressing confidence in his leadership for overcoming the crisis.
Then, when Suharto became enamored of a risky alternative to prop up Indonesia's currency, Clinton called him on Feb. 21 and urged him to give up on the idea and stick with a program designed by the International Monetary Fund.
Teams of U.S. officials traveled to Jakarta to keep Suharto on track. As the Los Angeles Times reported at the time, the high-profile "parade of Americans to Jakarta left the impression among Indonesians that the United States was once again lining up behind Suharto."
Demonstrations against the government grew, along with allegations that the regime was abducting and torturing its critics, but the Clinton administration stayed focused on the international economic rescue.
On May 2, "administration officials said that, despite mounting criticism of the Suharto regime's human rights practices, they are not threatening to cut off Indonesia's $43 billion bailout led by the International Monetary Fund," The Washington Post reported. "Depriving the country of desperately needed cash, they argue, would only deepen its economic crisis and increase the chances of social turmoil and bloodshed."
The administration's position began to change only after Indonesia security forces killed unarmed student protesters on May 12. The State Department began hinting that it was time for Suharto to relinquish much, if not all, of his power. He finally resigned on May 21, 1998 -- about six months after the crisis began.
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