Western leaders, and the United States especially, have developed a strange habit of ordering particular dictators to step down while declaring their resort to savage violence “unacceptable.” What does “unacceptable” mean — to whom and how exactly so? One did not hear Churchill ordering Hitler to step down in 1940, or Truman demanding that Kim Il Sung leave in 1950, apparently because they either could not realize such threats or were first striving to create the conditions under which such monsters would be nullified by deeds rather than words. Usually those with inferior military power are the loudest; those with overwhelming force calibrate their rarer rhetoric in accordance with the planned use of force.
The problems with all this are multifold, well beyond the violation of the old precept about staying quiet while carrying a big stick. E.g., are we prepared to use force to back up our ultimatums? Is there any connection between a presidential threat and reality — that is, did Mubarak step down because we, a sizable donor and key ally, asked him to, or because the size of the resistance simply reached a tipping point? Were the two connected?
Timing is crucial: Does President Obama ask a Mubarak or Qaddafi to step down because they are innately savage and he wishes to preempt inevitable popular unrest and violence, or does he do so only in reaction to preexisting growing unrest and out of a desire to piggy-back on apparently successful indigenous efforts? That can be tricky: Two weeks ago we were lectured that Qaddafi would be gone within hours, tomorrow, within days, within a week; today we are warned of an upcoming Somalia-like civil war. And tomorrow, we will be told . . . what? If we sound bellicose and behind the curve, as in the case of Egypt and perhaps Libya, the U.S. seems opportunistic, predicating its principles on the apparent ebb and flow of crowds in the street.
And exactly what conditions earn a presidential put-down? A million people in the streets of Tehran demonstrating against fascist theocracy? The subversion of Lebanese democracy, serial assassination abroad, and overt support for terrorist killers, as in the case of the Syrian dictatorship? Why was Iran different from Tunisia and Egypt? Do we have any consistent template that governs the level of expressed American anguish — the degree of violence used against the people, the degree of anti-American hostility, the degree of support for international terrorism and unrest, the likelihood that a regime will fall soon?
At some point, we had better become consistent in the application of our threats and calibrate our rhetoric with our willingness and ability to use force. Otherwise, the more frequent the proclamations, the more empty they will sound, and the more irrelevant the U.S. will appear.