Walter Russell Mead: The Plagues of Egypt

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Walter Russell Mead is Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. He blogs at]

The Obama administration is now living through one of the oldest and most difficult recurring problems in American foreign policy: what do you do when revolution breaks out in an allied country?

The only clue history offers is not an encouraging one: there is often no satisfactory resolution of the dilemmas revolutions present.

In 1789 Americans watched the progress of revolution in their closest ally. King Louis XVI, whose decision to back the colonists with money, ships and troops forced Britain to recognize American independence, was tottering on his throne.

In 1917, as the United States moved toward entry into World War One, Americans watched the February Revolution drive Tsar Nicholas II from his absolute rule in one of our key allies in the conflict we were about to begin.

In 1948-49 the Truman administration watched as communist forces systematically defeated the nationalists in the Chinese Revolution. At the dawn of the Cold War, the most populous country in the world fell under communist rule.

Ten years later the Eisenhower administration watched Fidel Castro seize power in Cuba and begin the process that would betray the hopes of Cubans and turn this neighboring state into a firm ally of the Soviet Union.

And in 1978 the Carter administration watched helplessly as mounting public anger in Iran drove one of our important Cold War allies from the throne.

None of these precedents will cheer up the White House. In all these cases, the United States failed to find an effective policy response to the revolution, and each time the foreign revolution created thorny political problems for the sitting president...

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