WASHINGTON — When Barack Obama went to Cairo in June 2009, he was lauded for seeking “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” His speech was spiked with apologies for what he believes are past American errors and omissions and peppered with Utopian calls for “peace in the Middle East,” a “world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons” and upholding “the richness of religious diversity.” The president also boldly proclaimed himself to be “a student of history.” But two years on, it appears he has not learned some of history’s lessons very well.
Obama must have missed the lesson “What To Say and When” in Presidency 101. Harry Truman missed it, too. In January 1950, with Mao Zedong and the communists triumphant in China, Secretary of State Dean Acheson pointedly omitted the Republic of Korea from the Truman administration’s Asian “defensive perimeter.” They were listening in Pyongyang and Beijing. Six months later, the Korean People’s Army assaulted across the 38th parallel and plunged the world into the Korean War — at the cost of more than 36,000 American lives.
In October 1956, in the midst of Hungarian protests against Soviet occupation troops, President Dwight Eisenhower erred by allowing his administration to say too much. He raised popular hopes by having his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, bring the matter before the United Nations Security Council. When the U.S. government’s Radio Free Europe broadcast appeals for the Hungarian people to join the resistance and fight for liberation, they did. Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev responded with 17 Soviet armored, mechanized and infantry divisions to crush the rebellion. Nearly 3,000 were killed.
Jimmy Carter’s presidency was a cascade of national security catastrophes precipitated by saying too much at the wrong time. On New Year’s Eve going into 1978, he toasted the Shah of Iran at a state dinner in Tehran as “an island of stability.” By August, the president was demanding “immediate, free and fair elections in Iran.” On Jan. 16, 1979, the shah fled to Egypt, and two weeks later, Carter’s ambassador in Tehran described Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a “Gandhi-like figure.” Days later, after the ayatollah was declared “supreme ruler,” a Carter administration spokesman described the “holy man” to be a person of “impeccable integrity.” On Nov. 4, Iranian “students,” supported by Khomeini’s 5-month-old Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, sacked the U.S. Embassy and took 56 American citizens hostage. They were held for 444 days. We still are living with the consequences.
Saying too much in the midst of turmoil was also a problem in 1991 after the liberation of Kuwait by a U.S.-led multinational coalition during Operation Desert Storm. In February, on Voice of America broadcasts, President George H.W. Bush urged “the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” The people of Iraq certainly tried. Within days of the Iraqi army’s surrender at Safwan on Feb. 28, Shiite tribes in southern Iraq and then Kurds in the north rose up to take on “the criminal tyrant” in Baghdad. When expected American support never materialized, Saddam dispatched his Republican Guard forces to brutally suppress the uprising, at a death toll believed to be in the tens of thousands.
Those are some of the lessons of history Obama apparently doesn’t understand. He was mute for weeks in the summer of 2009 as hundreds of thousands of Iranians protested a fraudulent presidential election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Last month, evidently unmoved by appeals from then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the president was unwilling or unable to condemn a Hezbollah takeover in Lebanon. Three weeks ago, as protesters were ousting Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from two decades in power and rioters took to the streets in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen, the O-Team finally began to take notice. But nearly everything Obama and his spokesmen have said seems to fuel the fire.
When Cairo erupted in violence after Friday prayers Jan. 28, a State Department spokesman told reporters that the administration was “reviewing U.S. aid to Egypt.” If that was supposed to be a signal of support for the Egyptian military — an ally in Desert Storm and the most respected government institution in the Land of the Pharaohs — it didn’t work. And neither Obama’s silence on the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the violence nor his televised pleas that “we pray that violence in Egypt will end and the rights and aspirations of the Egyptian people will be realized” have helped.
On Wednesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to “begin a government transition.” When asked when such a change should occur, he replied, “Now (and) ‘now’ means ‘yesterday.'” Just hours later, Fox News correspondent Greg Palkot and cameraman Olaf Wiig were attacked and severely injured — and the State Department urged all Americans to get out of Egypt “immediately.”
The administration has staked any hope of a positive outcome in this crisis on Mubarak’s departure after three decades of rule. That’s another lesson from history it may have missed. It was nine months after the shah fled Tehran that our embassy was sacked and the hostages were taken. If Obama wants to avoid his own Jimmy Carter moment, he might be wise to speak less, listen more and act quietly.
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