UNTIL very recently, no one would have predicted that Barack Obama would be forcing foreign leaders from power with greater regularity than George W. Bush. The president maintains that the United States is not playing kingmaker, but is merely enabling people to choose their leaders. But history indicates that the president’s choice of a provisional leader may have a much greater impact on a country’s political future than the desires of its people.
Nowadays, the United States has great influence when it comes to selecting who rules between the collapse of an authoritarian regime and the holding of elections. American support put Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in charge of Egypt’s provisional government in February. Libya’s National Transitional Council and Yemen’s Vice President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi are most likely next.
Unfortunately, we have repeatedly ruined transitions to democracy by backing provisional leaders who broke promises to govern virtuously and instead focused on staying in power and silencing their political opponents. Isaias Afwerki, whom Washington endorsed as head of Eritrea’s provisional government in 1991, went on to stifle dissent and obstruct democracy with such efficiency that he remains in power 20 years later. In 1999, the West supported Hashim Thaci as interim head of an autonomous Kosovo, only to watch him engage in ethnic cleansing and exploit his newfound power and prestige to win election as prime minister in 2008.
The Iraqi election of 2005 brought to power Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who combined ineptitude in governance with brutal persecution of Sunnis. His behavior proved so harmful that the Bush administration pushed him out. And the countries that anointed Hamid Karzai head of a provisional Afghan government in 2001 now deplore his 10-year-old regime for electoral fraud and corruption.
The danger of a perpetual provisional government has already surfaced in Egypt. Last week, protesters demanded the resignation of Mr. Tantawi, their onetime ally, after he rounded up political dissenters. The same danger lurks in Yemen with Mr. Hadi, who spent decades as a senior aide to an authoritarian ruler.
Transitions from authoritarianism to democracy also fail regularly because the provisional leadership lacks the will or ability to protect itself from enemies inside or outside the government. In 1917, Russia’s provisional leader, Aleksandr Kerensky, fell in four months because he could not match the political and military strength of the Bolsheviks. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the provisional government of Mehdi Bazargan — which the Carter administration supported in place of the shah — lasted nine months before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini forced Bazargan’s resignation.
How can we avoid these pitfalls? For starters, we can spend more time researching prospective candidates. We embraced Mr. Thaci, who, European investigators now say, headed a criminal organization that murdered Serbs and harvested their organs. In Iraq, we empowered Ahmad Chalabi, despite his conviction for embezzling millions of dollars in Jordan. American policymakers and diplomats must also avoid giving preference to intellectuals, technocrats and opposition politicians. We tend to favor those who wax eloquent about democracy and moderation, hold advanced degrees and speak English. But these traits are usually irrelevant, or worse.
Many unsuccessful provisional leaders — like Mr. Karzai, Mr. Bazargan and a variety of Iraqis — possessed all these traits. Grand in vision, they lacked the organizational ability and force of personality to translate ideas into reality. Preferring conciliation to confrontation in dealing with opponents, they were undermined or thrown out by men more devious and ruthless than they.
Mahmoud Jibril, the leader of the National Transitional Council of Libya, bears a disturbing resemblance to those failed leaders. An intellectual technocrat, he holds an American doctorate and has written several books, but has not shown an ability to manage or lead. Meanwhile, charismatic Islamic radicals are gathering supporters in the rebel armed forces and on the sidelines.
Very rarely do we find a career intellectual like Vaclav Havel, who succeeded in leading Czechoslovakia to democracy after the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Provisional leaders with the best records of success tend to have executive experience, like Lech Walesa of Poland and B. J. Habibie of Indonesia, or years of service in parties or legislatures, like Patricio Aylwin, who led Chile to democracy after the Pinochet dictatorship. Common to all of these successful leaders was a willingness to stand up to injustice and subversion — and personalities strong enough to sweep others along with them, but not so strong that they alienated fellow elites. These are the qualities President Obama must seek.
By Mark Moyar, the author of A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency From the Civil War to Iraq.