- By Park MacDougaldPark MacDougald is an assistant editor at Foreign Affairs.
On Thursday, Barack Obama took a break from vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard to address the ongoing crisis in Egypt, condemning the military’s use of violence against pro-Morsy protesters and announcing the cancelation of joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercises. It’s a predicament presidents find themselves in more than you might think; as Bloomberg noted earlier this week — before Egypt’s bloody clashes erupted — the world has a habit of going to pieces while presidents are getting their R&R, with the George W. Bush/Hurricane Katrina debacle being but one particularly memorable example. Here are some of the biggest international crises to hit the fan while U.S. presidents were out of the office.
FDR and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
Few treaties in history rival the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop, or Nazi-Soviet, Pact. Signed on Aug. 23, 1939 by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and his German counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the agreement provided a roadmap for the carving up of Eastern Europe between the USSR and Nazi Germany, and gave Germany the green light to invade Poland, which it did eight days later.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was on a presidential cruise onboard the USS Tuscaloosa, traveling from Canada to New Jersey on his way back to Washington. FDR was wrapping up a month-long vacation that had begun at his famous Hyde Park estate in New York and ended with a cruise to Nova Scotia. Although his presence on the ship didn’t really make a difference in the end — he was back in Washington by 1:30 in the afternoon the next day, and was able to send a telegram to Adolf Hitler urging peace in the meantime — nothing ruins your day like finding out that two totalitarian superpowers are teaming up to start the deadliest war in human history. When Germany invaded Poland just over a week later, FDR announced that America would remain neutral in the conflict.
Ronald Reagan and Flight KAL 007
Obama might have been less-than-thrilled to spend his precious time off giving a press conference on Egypt, but the situation pales in comparison to one of the tensest diplomatic crises of the entire Cold War — the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by Soviet fighters — while both President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Gen. Yuri Andropov were away on vacation.
The incident occurred on Sept. 1, 1983, when a Soviet fighter jet shot down a KAL passenger flight after it had unknowingly entered Soviet airspace. All 269 passengers, including 61 Americans and one U.S. congressman (Larry McDonald, president of the John Birch Society and fan of Rudolf Hess) were killed in the subsequent crash, provoking a series of bitter recriminations between the Soviet Union and the United States. At the time, Reagan was at his famed Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara, Calif. and was reportedly irate when asked to cut his vacation short because of the crisis. The White House spokesman at the time, Larry Speakes, argued that there was nothing that the president could do in Washington that he couldn’t do in California – which was probably true. This attitude was quickly abandoned, however, as the severity of the crisis (and the bad PR) came into sharper focus.
George H.W. Bush and the Gulf War
George W. Bush was often mocked for his serial vacationing. During his eight years in office, Dubya set a record for most vacation days in a single presidency, amassing 879 over the course of two terms. But the younger Bush wasn’t the only member of his family with a penchant for taking a few days off during turbulent times – and getting hounded by the media for it. His father, George H.W. Bush, was a pioneer of the genre back in the early 1990s.
During the buildup to the first Persian Gulf War in August 1990, just a few weeks after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and as American troops prepared for the possibility of war, George Sr. faced heavy media criticism for playing golf in Maine as the Middle East seemingly fell apart. While the president was keeping abreast of developments in the region with briefs from his top advisors (something that holds true for every vacationing president), jarring images in the press of a golfing president and rolling tanks served up easy fodder for criticism. On the bright side, the elder Bush delivered a gem when asked about the impending war, explaining to a reporter that "when I’m recreating, [I] will recreate" — a line that will certainly come in handy next time you’re asked to come into the office on a weekend. Despite the sniping, Americans supported the man’s right to his vacation. A Wall Street Journal poll taken at the time found that 53 percent of the public supported their executive’s decision to fight for the right to recreate.
Unfortunately for H.W,, the Gulf War wasn’t the only world historical event to occur during the lazy month of August. The following year, in August 1991, Bush was at his vacation home in Maine when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev survived an attempted coup, presaging the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s enough to make a man never want to go on vacation again.
Barack Obama and Liu Xiaobo
Usually when an international crisis erupts during a presidential vacation, it’s a product of circumstance — something terrible might happen when the commander-in-chief’s on holiday, but it doesn’t happen because he’s on holiday. Not so with China’s conviction of dissident intellectual Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for subversion on Christmas Day 2009. Liu, a former university professor and leading regime critic, had received a considerable amount of attention in the West following his involvement with Charter 08, a manifesto criticizing the authoritarian practices of the Chinese Communist Party and calling for free elections and respect for human rights. Because of his international stature, the Party reportedly chose to announce the draconian sentence on Christmas Day, while most of the Western world would not be paying attention.
The strategy was partially successful. Liu’s sentencing provoked relatively little outrage at the time and no immediate response from the U.S. government, but a few months later he was awarded the Nobel Peace Price. Finally, in December 2010 — nearly a year after his original sentencing, — Obama was sufficiently moved to draw attention to Liu in a speech, demanding his release and claiming "he was far more deserving of [the] award than I was."