Ronald Reagan and Hosni Mubarak
Greetings to the League from “Jonny the Fiancé” (Think “Joe the Plumber” and “Tito the Builder”). While Lisa is at her mother’s I have self-motivated to organize some of my thoughts on today’s noteworthy events, the 100th Birthday of Ronald Reagan and the Superbowl.
These occur amid an increasingly uncertain situation in Egypt, where black and white categorizations of the repressive government and the righteous street give way to multiple shades of grey. The Muslim Brotherhood, proud assassin of peacemaker Anwar Sadat, is a major stakeholder of the uprising. Mubarak’s Egypt has been a safe and stable, if corrupt, puppet regime. The Egyptian military, largest ground force in the region with 1.3 million troops, has impeded unrest in Gaza, cut arms smuggling and stood alongside the Turkish Army as a bulwark against Iranian or Syrian aggression. That and they have so far been blessedly restrained with their lethal capacities and seem intent to protect and shepherd the people above all.
There are no such shades of grey in tonight’s Superbowl matchup. Green Bay, community-owned and loyal to its relatively small but football-loving town, would be my sentimental favorite against any other team. Aaron Rodgers is athletic (like Roethlisberger), honorable (…), and stepped in for a legend at his position without missing a step.
However, as a rabid Ravens fan it won’t even come down to liking the Packers. I hate the Steelers like Lisa hates Lebron James and Mark Teixeira. Haloti Ngata, already a fan favorite, became a god around here when he broke Big Ben’s nose during our last regular season matchup. Howard Fineman’s recent editorial manages to simultaneously embrace the Steelers’ bad-boy image while denouncing it as a New York sports media conspiracy. I guess you have to love your team, right or wrong.
I sometimes envy people who are able to approach more complex judgments with the same binary analysis I apply to football, and I think I can safely say that Ronald Reagan was the most consequential and powerful person in his era to view the world in this way. Every biography and documentary about Reagan extols his tendency to idolize the good guys, the white-hats, sheriffs and allied generals that he would go on to always insist on portraying. In his youthful summers he was a lifeguard and fashioned his identity around coming to the rescue. When it came to communism, President Reagan was less interested in making distinctions among the Vietnamese, Chinese and Soviet varieties and more inclined to ride to the rescue, stamping out nationalist Marxist revolts with the same vigor that he rooted out communists in the 1950s film industry.
I am no fan of Reagan-era internationalism. His evangelical anticommunism, under the watchful eye of George Schultz and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, led to the empowerment of many tin pot dictators in our hemisphere whose constant warring against internal Marxists justified sanctioned suppression with steady streams of U.S. aid, arms and advisors. However, the nature of Reagan’s personality and worldview helped to set the stage for a showdown in another hemisphere between a peaceful people and a repressive ruler that helped to define a nation in my lifetime – The people-powered Phillipine “EDSA” revolt.
Like Hosni Mubarak, Marcos was a dutiful servant to U.S. interests in his region, providing bases capable of defending Japan, Taiwan and South Korea and keeping a lid on rural Marxist guerillas and internal democratic opposition, to the point of declaring a 9-year period of martial law in 1972. In that sense, like Mubarak, his legitimacy rested on his usefulness to our geopolitical strategy, not on the consent of the governed. Like Mubarak his armaments were largely produced in U.S. factories and purchased with U.S. aid. Kirkpatrick looked at strongmen like Mubarak and Marcos with a cold realism reminiscent of FDR’s summation of Anastsio Somoza (“he’s an S.O.B. but he’s our S.O.B.”) but Reagan’s connection was more personal, according to a 1989 New York Times Magazine article by Stanley Karnow:
Ronald Reagan, by contrast, genuinely cherished the Marcoses. In 1969, Governor and Mrs. Reagan visited Manila, where Imelda’s opulent parties dazzled them. From then on, Reagan, impressed by Marcos’s exaggerated stories of his exploits as an anti-Japanese guerrilla, counted him among the world’s ”freedom fighters” in the struggle against Communism. In Reagan’s eyes, as one of his aides mused later, Marcos was ”a hero on a bubble-gum card he had collected as a kid.”
In 1983 Marcos’s security forces assassinated Liberal party leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, who was returning home after expatriating during the martial law years. Marcos was convinced that he had the support of Reagan and refused contacts from lower diplomatic channels exerting pressure. Marcos hired an American P.R. firm and held an election, which he had already pre-rigged to be close but decisive. Senator Richard Lugar led a panel of American observers to the elections. Karnow continues:
“Election Day, Feb. 7, 1986, was marred by the usual cases of intimidation and killings, mostly by Marcos’s thugs. The serious chicanery, though, came in counting the votes, as Marcos ordered his official Commission on Elections to delay the count to enable him to tailor the total. An independent tabulator, the National Movement for Free Elections (partly funded by the United States) put Cory Aquino ahead . . . In Washington, a State Department task force fed Reagan massive evidence of Marcos’s electoral abuses. But the President preferred his own sources. Nancy gave him information she was receiving by telephone from Imelda. Donald T. Regan, his chief of staff, and William Casey pressed him to stick with Marcos . . . Lugar candidly told Reagan that Marcos was ”cooking the results.” Reagan referred to a television segment he had seen of Aquino’s campaigners destroying ballots (it later turned out they were Marcos workers). Lugar persisted, relating his own accounts of Marcos’s misconduct. Reagan disregarded him, observing at a news conference that evening that fraud was ”occurring on both sides.”
Loyal to his anticommunist hero and friend, Reagan would need more persuasion to side with the people. The initiative came from within the Philippine government, as Marcos’s Defense Minister led a mutiny and barricaded the Defense ministry in preparation for a siege from Marcos’s loyal forces. The people of Manila crowded the highway known as Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (the namesake of the “EDSA” revolt) and stood in the path of Marcos ’tanks. Marcos’s forces, like the Egyptian army, restrained themselves and refused to fire killing shots into the crowd, preserving the standoff.
A diplomatic cable from Manila read “Marcos will not draw the conclusion that he must leave unless President Reagan puts it to him directly.” To Reagan’s credit he acted, acted the right way, and acted decisively in a rare situation when the President matters equally to millions of people he’ll never meet, who will never write him a check or cast a ballot for him and to a man of outsized power, an actual friend, with money and influence who has hosted our military, feted our movie stars, and stood up to the communists.
”Attempts to prolong the life of the present regime by violence are futile. A solution to this crisis can only be achieved through a peaceful transition to a new government.” Reagan’s statement was cutting and clear, as was his offer of asylum in Hawaii. He provided a dignified exit for Marcos, and his eventual shame would come not from being forced from office, but from the subsequent unearthing of his embezzlement of his country’s wealth. Can’t blame Ronnie for that.
So as Egypt evolves, we’re seeing the movement towards the same kind of resolution. It has not become about whether Mubarak will exit but when he will go and whether he will be shamed or dignified. The division within the government between political and military rulers in Egypt is the most encouraging concurrence with the EDSA-era Philippines. I agree with Lisa when she says that September is too long to wait. Lots of emergencies can happen necessitating more emergency decrees and during a window without demonstrations security forces might be able to arrest and otherwise incapacitate the most effective protest leaders. Still, we are watching history unfold in ways that will probably be consequential to us in the long run, and the unfolding of history begets the examination of history. Thanks for your time.