Sunday, January 30, 2011

Don’t Let Mubarak In! Obama’s Carter moment and what he can learn from the 1980 Iranian hostage crisis

When the inevitable occurs–Hosni Mubarak of Egypt steps down or is forced to leave–the United States and Obama should not give him asylum in this country. This would be repeating the same mistake that President Carter made with the Shah of Iran in 1979. A decision to eventually led to the taking of 52 American hostages.

Watching the events in Egypt unfold in the last few days reminds me so much of Iran in 1979 and 1980. The parallels seem so scary and similar.

1979 and the Shah of Iran
The Shah of Iran was an American ally who ran a secularist, brutal regime that was in many ways propped up by the United States. He was considered an important military and regional ally of this county and he received significant financial and military assistance from this country. However, he became increasingly despised by his people and there was a growing Islamic movement–remotely directed and inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini in exile from France.

As the pressures internally mounted against the Shah, he initially sought to crack down on the protests and suppress the Islamic movement. But when the movement began to swell and his crackdown became more severe, the United States was caught in a dilemma. Should it support the Shah and his regime in his crackdown or encourage a transition in power to something the United States could not predict? Moreover, the United States could not tolerate the repression the Shah was using to stay in power, and President Jimmy Carter, committed to an agenda and foreign policy of protecting human rights, encouraged the Shah to show restraint when dealing the demonstrators. He did, and some argue that the easing of oppression and the light response he took toward the demonstrators paved the way for his eventual ouster. From there, stuck with what to do to get the Shah out, Carter permitted him entrance into the United States for medical treatment and exile until it became clear that his residence in this country was a political liability and he was invited to exit.

Yet, in allowing the Shah to enter the United States, it made the country look like it was his puppeteer. In part the decision to let the Shah enter the US precipitated the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran and the taking of the hostages.

I remember the Iranian hostage crisis well. I was a senior in college, applying to graduate school in political science, and watched how it was the final event that perhaps doomed the Carter presidency and helped elect Reagan. Carter’s missteps, the image of a failed presidency, all were contributing forces that led to his downfall.

2010 and Mubarak of Egypt
Mubarak reminds me so much of the Shah. He took over after the assassination of Sadat and has run a brutal secular regime. He has stayed in power via rigged elections and by suppression of an opposition that includes the Islamic Brotherhood. He is an ally of the United States, receiving significant financial and military aid from the United States, in part because of a reward for negotiating peace with Israel. I think Egypt is the second largest recipient of foreign and military aid from the US (behind Israel as number one), but don’t quote me on the exact ranking. It is significant, but perhaps not number two.

The US supports Egypt in large part because of the peace deal with Israel. We need Egypt as an ally to protect Israel. It is still one of the only Middle East Arab states that recognizes the latter’s right to exist. In short, we have had a strategic interest in supporting his regime even though from Reagan to Obama it was widely recognized he was unpopular.

Now, the forces of change are ready to topple Mubarak. There is an able opposition leader in El Baradei. He is secular but there are clear news reports that the Muslim brotherhood and the religious parties are willing to support him as a leader–at least as a transitional one. The demonstrations are growing and the demands for his ouster are growing internally. It is not clear if Mubarak has control or support of the military, and today on CBS news I saw American F-1 fighter planes that we sold to Egypt buzzing the protesters as a way to intimidate them.

Also on CBS today I saw Secretary of State Clinton call for Mubarak to ease up and not crack down on the protesters, and later call for him to facilitate a democratic transition. Obama and Clinton have not yet publicly called for Mubarak to step down, but it is close. The call on Mubarak not to crack down and perhaps make other reforms is reminiscent of Carter telling the Shah not to crack down and to respond to the demands of demonstrators.

Now, I am no Middle East expert, but all of this is beginning to smell more like 1980 all over again. Obama is trapped like Carter was. Strategic interests such as support for Israel, call for us to keep Mubarak in. There is as well as fear of instability, fear of what will happen next, and perhaps the fear of another Islamic fundamentalist regime hostile to the US. But the brutal regime and a commitment to democracy, a desire to expand influence in the Middle East, and a need to recognize the inevitable are forcing Obama to want to call for his ouster and step down. Vacillating on what to do is precisely where Carter was in 1979, and that is where Obama is now.

The choices are not great, but they clearly need to expend to calling for Mubarak to step down. But what then? What if anything can the US do to facilitate democracy and maintain Egypt as an ally? El Baradei has made it clear he does not see the US as a friend and having our F-1 fly over Cairo does not reinforce a favorable view of this country. We have supported a bad dictator for too many years and it is just not clear what influence the US has going forward.

Obama's Carter Moment
But one thing is clear as Obama makes choices: Don’t let Mubarak in the US. Do nor grant him asylum. Avoid giving any sign that the US continues to support him lest we give the opposition reason to hate us even more. I hope at this point Obama is reaching out to the opposition, but in doing so will the US send other signals to other regimes that democratic reform is needed? The Middle East–first with Tunisia, Egypt, and perhaps Yemen, suggest change is in the air.

Obama is facing a Carter moment in foreign policy that could dramatically impact his presidency. How he responds not only affects American foreign policy and influence across the world, but also perhaps his prospects in 2012.


In 1980, as a student I read Barrington Moore Jr.’s Reflection of the Causes of Human Misery and on Certain Proposals to Eliminate Them and Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt. Both were brilliant books that argued, among other things, that the failure to allow for social and democratic change was one of the chief causes of human misery and injustice in the world and that too often the US was viewed as the agent that stifled change. This was true in Iran in 1979-80–rightly or wrongly–and the same may be true today in Egypt. What has the United States learned since 1979? This is a good question to ponder.

1 comment:

  1. Are you advocating that he be barred from the country permanently (not even a visit), of just advocating against sanctuary here?

    I think it's highly unlikely that he would be granted asylum here, and possibly even more unlikely that he would ask for it. There are enough other places that would take him in (and would allow him to dodge pesky things like war crimes accusations or accusation of embezzlement or fraud). The U.S. might help facilitate his exit from the country (and might even give another country something under the table to give him a landing place), but there's basically no chance he comes here. The White House & State Department are not such fools.

    Whether or not he should be permanently barred entry to the US for any reason...may be another matter. A year from now, it probably won't matter much.