Sunday marked the hundredth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. With the news for the past several weeks focused on popular upheavals in the Middle East, let’s ask, what would Ronald Reagan have done in a situation like the one we are now facing in Egypt and elsewhere?
In fact we have a good idea how he would have responded. During his term three allies underwent very similar popular upheavals: South Korea, Chile, and the Philippines.
Remember that then and now, the situation was fundamentally different from the one President George H.W. Bush faced when the people of Eastern Europe turned against their Soviet puppet governments and when the Soviet Union itself collapsed. In those cases, the imploding regimes were totalitarian and sworn enemies of the United States. Now and in the Reagan term, the governments in question were and are autocratic but friends on the international stage.
The Philippines is a good case study, and the Reagan diaries are a good source. In the diaries, the president wrote two telling notes about the crisis in the multi-island nation.
In one note, with demonstrators marching daily against strongman Ferdinand Marcos and the Reagan’s national security council unanimous that Marcos must leave office, Reagan reports telling his advisors that he does not want the U.S. friendly dictator treated shabbily. He does not want a repeat of the way the U.S. treated the Shah of Iran when that regime fell late in President Jimmy Carter’s term.
In fact, the United States ended up providing Marcos and his wife Imelda (a target of popular protest herself) with a house in Hawaii and transit there when Marcos decided that his political standing had deteriorated beyond recovery.
In other words, Reagan opened a back door out of which Marcos could escape with his dignity as intact as it could be under the circumstance and where he and his entourage could be safe while they decided where to set up permanent residency.
In his second diary note on the Philippines demonstrations, Reagan reports telling his staff that any public statement he makes on the situation must include the message that if Marcos resorts to violence, Reagan would be “powerless” to stop a cut off of U.S. funding to the regime.
Note the phrasing. The president did not slap down an ultimatum. He simply reported on a political reality and his ability to respond. So, again, he did not tell Marcos what to do. He did not humiliate the falling leader. In fact, by saying he would be powerless, he positioned the United States in a way that made it acceptable to both parties as a sympathetic and realistic mediator, one who nevertheless favored democratic reform when it could be achieved.
What was missing from the Reagan rhetoric?
No direct demands for action “now.”
No bravado about “now” starting yesterday.
No statements that would suggest that the U.S. was indifferent to providing a graceful exit.
No rejecting of years of alliance.
When the current administration entered office, it made a big deal of resetting relations not just with the Soviet Union but with the Muslim Middle East. Re-reading the president’s Cairo speech, it is easy to see how administration apologists might say that Mr. Obama continued to press for democratic reform in the region.
But the tone of statements going back to the campaign and administration actions behind the scenes left the impression that repairing relations with the Muslim world meant no more pressure of consequence on autocratic regimes to open up.
It may turn out that the administration’s diplomacy or events on their own turn out well. In Egypt and elsewhere, we may see emerge friendly regimes headed by popularly elected rulers under constitutions that guarantee regular elections, rule of law, and freedom of expression.
But we did end up with those kinds of governments in place in the Philippines, South Korea, and Chile during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. In this, Mr. Reagan’s centennial week, the subtlety, prudence, and balance of the former president’s handling of those crises provide good lessons for us all to keep in mind as the drums of democracy beat in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.