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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 02/ 5/2011

History lesson: Why letting go is so hard to do

By Glenn Kessler

"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.

By Glenn Kessler  | February 5, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama, Middle East, issue context  
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Comments

Enjoy the dictators while they last. Thank you for the history lesson.

Posted by: ratl | February 5, 2011 7:47 AM | Report abuse

Egypt have never been a democracy. However, Egypt has not even been an independent country for almost 2,000 years except for the brief period when Nasser was "king" with the support of the former Soviet Union (of course, Egypt wasn't really very independent but at least they were free of western domination).

Since Sadat took over made peace with Israel, Egypt has been run by the U.S. and Israel for the benefit of those two countries by proxy dictators like Mubarak, and it should not be surprising that Egyptians want their country back.

However, hopefully, as Nobel prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfuz suggested in his novels, Egyptians will realize that being in a permanent state of war with Israel is NOT in their best interests.

Posted by: jjedif | February 5, 2011 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Certainly not worth the title FACT CHECKER!

"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."

A bloody and uncertain course of action is exactly what immediately followed. Of the next 6 heads of government on some level

Bakhtiar, Bazargan, Al-Rajai, Bahonar, Banisadr and Ghotzbadeh

four were killed, one fled to France to avoid being killed, and Bazargan died of natural causes after wisely retiring.


Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 5, 2011 1:53 PM | Report abuse

It is sad to see the aspirations of ordinary middle-easterners to get crushed due to so-called "strategic" partnership between the US and dictators such as Mubarak. My only conclusion is that the US wants "Freedom" only when it is convenient to itself and it's allies. I have yet to see evidence contrary to that.

Posted by: venky1 | February 5, 2011 5:27 PM | Report abuse

The Washington Post, an uber-leftist-socialist activist organization, acting as fact checker?


LOL

Posted by: FormerDemocrat | February 5, 2011 5:29 PM | Report abuse

"The Washington Post, an uber-leftist-socialist activist organization, acting as fact checker?


LOL"

Posted by: FormerDemocrat, CurrentTroll
=============================================
*ding* "You've got attention" *ding*

Satisfied?

Posted by: treetopflyer | February 5, 2011 5:48 PM | Report abuse

It might be useful to reflect why we find ourselves repeatedly allying with tinpot dictators, sheikhly kleptocrats, thugs, and conmen against their own people.

It's the foreign policy.


Posted by: R49Thomas | February 5, 2011 6:17 PM | Report abuse

The Washington Post, an uber-rightist-activist organization, acting as fact checker?

LOL

Posted by: jjedif | February 5, 2011 6:22 PM | Report abuse


The reason the US panders to dictators in the Middle East and won't let go?

I-S-R-A-E-L


Posted by: bloggersvilleusa | February 5, 2011 6:46 PM | Report abuse

After 30 years of constant support of this tinpot dictator, it is funny how USA is trying to get the credit for this change. Sorry, the history has been written and would never forget those who helped this tyran for last 30 years to keep the chain of oppression going for the selfish agenda full with zionist dreams. Back off, the people of Egyprt are better off without this agenda driven dialogue where the future interests are paramount to the voices of people.

Posted by: Rahi1 | February 5, 2011 7:27 PM | Report abuse

The evil Washington Regime, its ruling class, and their secret police support Dictatorships and oppression around the world because these people are like them: same ethics, same morals, same values, no integrity, no soul, nothing that is good or just or right. Just people that believe might makes right, abuses of power are the norm, and that they are bound by no laws.

Posted by: max21c | February 5, 2011 7:34 PM | Report abuse

Strategically, Iran was a small player in a much larger game in 1979, being on the Soviet border.
What Britain and the US did to create the Shah was not right, but could be indirectly justified by that larger game.
Of course, stealing the oil back was a side-benefit, right BP?
We were, at the time, just as deep in bed with an equally nasty dictator in Pakistan, which may explain the importance the Soviets felt about Afghanistan, to split our 2 "friends".

Posted by: OldUncleTom | February 5, 2011 7:50 PM | Report abuse

It's hard to let go because: 1-we have given these Dictators billions in finacial aid for many years-money that we didn't have for health care, our infrastructure, public education and many social programs, 2-because we have given them over the years our highly sophisticated, expensive military hardware and technology and we don't know now in whose hands they will end up, and finally 3-because it clearly shows the double standard of our foreign policy to the rest of the World and the fragility of trust our allies have in America.

Posted by: lionelroger | February 5, 2011 7:55 PM | Report abuse

The CIA created today's Iran:

**1952

Britain, resentful of the nationalization of Iran's oil industry, came up with the idea for the coup in 1952 and pressed the U.S. to mount a joint operation to remove the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh[1] and install the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to rule Iran autocratically. Partially due to fear of a Communist overthrow due to increasing influence of the Communist Tudeh party, and partly to gain control of a larger share of Iranian oil supplies, the US agreed. Brigadier General Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr. and CIA guru Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. were ordered to begin a covert operation to overthrow Mossadegh. A complex plot, codenamed Operation Ajax, was conceived and executed from the US Embassy in Tehran. Full details of the operation were released fifty years later, in 2003. Britain, who previously had controlled all of the Iranian oil industry, lost its monopoly and allowed U.S. oil companies to compete in Iran.**

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CIA_activities_in_Iran

The US likes dictators b/c it is a nation of thieves and mass murderers, no?

Posted by: lichtme | February 5, 2011 8:50 PM | Report abuse

There is a long and consistent history of the United States overthrowing democratic governments and replacing them with bloody dictatorships. Guatemala, Brazil, Iran, Dominican Republic are a few examples. Once these bloody dictatorships are in place, the United States has expended billions of dollars to prop them up against internal resistance. Although this may come as a shock to school children and journalists, it has been well documented and explained by historians. The economic and geo-strategic imperatives of US imperialism have always trumped democratic values, fine rhetoric to the contrary. In cases where democracy results in regimes subservient to US economic and geostrategic interests, as in the former Eastern Bloc countries, democracy is permitted and praised. But if democratic movements give the slightest hint of putting their own people's national interests (control of natural resources, fighting poverty, etc) above those of US imperialism, as is now feared in Egypt, the United States will relentlessly undermine them. It is for this reason that the United States prefers dictatorship over democracy in the Middle East. This behavior was evident long before anyone ever heard of Muslim fundamentalism, whose existence, since the end of the Cold War, has become the preferred alibi for US apologetics. The apologists who dominate US media coverage of the events in Egypt justify the preference for dictatorship as perhaps unfortunate but absolutely necessary to preserve "stability" and "peace". But the hypocrisy of the United States has become very obvious to the the masses in the Middle East who live under its boot. Stability in these circumstances is an illusion that easily crumbles, as the Obama Administration is learning. Long humiliation breeds a hunger for revenge, increasing, not decreasing the possibilities of violence and war. Supporting dictatorship will become more and more costly for the United States. It is more risky in the long run than supporting freedom.

Posted by: SocialCritic | February 5, 2011 9:28 PM | Report abuse

There is a long and consistent history of the United States overthrowing democratic governments and replacing them with bloody dictatorships. Guatemala, Brazil, Iran, Dominican Republic are a few examples. Once these bloody dictatorships are in place, the United States has expended billions of dollars to prop them up against internal resistance. Although this may come as a shock to school children and journalists, it has been well documented and explained by historians. The economic and geo-strategic imperatives of US imperialism have always trumped democratic values, fine rhetoric to the contrary. In cases where democracy results in regimes subservient to US economic and geostrategic interests, as in the former Eastern Bloc countries, democracy is permitted and praised. But if democratic movements give the slightest hint of putting their own people's national interests (control of natural resources, fighting poverty, etc) above those of US imperialism, as is now feared in Egypt, the United States will relentlessly undermine them. It is for this reason that the United States prefers dictatorship over democracy in the Middle East. This behavior was evident long before anyone ever heard of Muslim fundamentalism, whose existence, since the end of the Cold War, has become the preferred alibi for US apologetics. The apologists who dominate US media coverage of the events in Egypt justify the preference for dictatorship as perhaps unfortunate but absolutely necessary to preserve "stability" and "peace". But the hypocrisy of the United States has become very obvious to the the masses in the Middle East who live under its boot. Stability in these circumstances is an illusion that easily crumbles, as the Obama Administration is learning. Long humiliation breeds a hunger for revenge, increasing, not decreasing the possibilities of violence and war. Supporting dictatorship will become more and more costly for the United States. It is more risky in the long run than supporting freedom.

Posted by: SocialCritic | February 5, 2011 9:28 PM | Report abuse

Hey Kessler ! America's problem isn't wondering how Obama will deal with Dictators from other countries, but how America will deal with the Dictator in the Brown House .

Posted by: puck-101 | February 6, 2011 6:34 AM | Report abuse

Certainly not worth the title FACT CHECKER!

"A bloody and uncertain course of action is exactly what immediately followed. Of the next 6 heads of government on some level

Bakhtiar, Bazargan, Al-Rajai, Bahonar, Banisadr and Ghotzbadeh

four were killed, one fled to France and was killed there, and Bazargan died of natural causes after wisely retiring."

Nice Try. Unless you're trying to make point that 4 out of the 6 leaders you note were assassinated by the Peoples' Fedayeen of Iran and, by possible proxy, America.

The US only decided to list that group as a 'terror organization' in 2009, and was thinking of de-listing it last year. This in opposite example to something really terroristic like the IRA which is, characteristically, once on, never off. Our 'freedom fighters', as opposed to somebody else's 'terrorists'.

Posted by: keviquin | February 6, 2011 8:41 AM | Report abuse

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