TDG #1 – Executive Decision (Military Coup in 2009 Thailand)
It’s 1:30 AM, and you’ve just arrived at the White House Situation Room. (The President of the United States is at a conference in Malta, and you’re in charge!) A coup attempt is taking place in Thailand. In 2005, the U.S. had entered into a five-year agreement to lease a port and airstrip for the use of U.S. military forces. In the ensuing years, the bases quickly became integral to U.S. military efforts in Asia. The strategic location enabled the U.S. to keep close watch on China, North Korea, Indonesia, and other hotspots in the region. By December 1st, 2009, the air base and the naval base had become two of the biggest U.S. military bases in the world. The U.S. hopes to renew the lease for twenty years after the current five-year lease expires.
An aide hands you the phone. It’s the president of Thailand. She had come to power in 2007 and quickly brought democratic reforms to the nation. As a result of this democratization, Thailand had garnered good relations with the U.S., and if it were up to her, she would ratify the twenty-year lease extension. However, it isn’t up to her, but the Thai Senate. In three months the senate will be voting for or against the lease extension, and it isn’t looking good for the U.S. Fifteen senators are against the extension, while only nine are for it. Publicly, the U.S. is supporting Thailand’s current government, but the U.S. wants to keep the bases too!
Secretly, the U.S. has been preparing the U.S. friendly Thai military forces for a coup. The plan is for Thai Special Forces to conduct the coup and install a U.S. friendly military commander who would then renew the leases. (For decades, the U.S. and Thai military have conducted annual joint military exercises code-named Cobra Gold. But this year’s exercises were different. Thai Special Forces, including the Thai Royal Marines and the Thai Rangers, had received specialized and intensive training in demolitions, small arms weapons, and related training from a Marine Expeditionary Unit.)
The President of Thailand gives you the news, and it’s not good. Thai Special forces (now rebels) have taken control over large parts of Bangkok, and are advancing on the Presidential Palace. She reports that her loyalist forces can’t hold out much longer without U.S. help. Specifically, she requests U.S. jets to strafe the rebels approaching her palace. (Her own air force has decided to sit this one out.) You have the Ronald Reagan Carrier Battle Group standing by off the coast of Thailand, having been summoned off of shore leave in Pattaya Beach, Thailand. What do you do? Do you order jets to strafe Thai troops specifically trained by the U.S. to conduct the coup? Or do you deny the use of U.S. military forces under the premise of not interfering in the internal affairs of a foreign country? Or do you do something else?
The future of U.S. credibility and strategic power in Asia rests in your hands. You tell the Thai president that you’ll call her back in fifteen minutes with your decision. What is your executive decision?
There are no easy solutions to this TDG, as a similar incident in the Philippines illustrates. In December 1989, Philippine Special Forces attempted a coup in the country. Vice President Dan Quayle, who was subbing for President George Bush who was away on business, ordered U.S. warplanes to fly a “cap” over Manilla at the request of Philippine President Cory Aquino. F-4s, flying from Clark Air Base, effectively ended the coup, killing a number of U.S. trained “rebels” and killing chances for continued U.S. presence at Subic and Clark. It’s not clear if the U.S. had any involvement in the coup. Dan Quayle, in his book Standing Firm, wrote that it was “a great moment for me personally. We saved democracy without firing a shot.”