U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today that the United States is will recognize Libya's Transitional National Council as the country's "legitimate governing authority". This comes as something of a surprise, as the normal U.S. policy is to recognize whichever government is in de facto power of a country. Despite recent rebel gains, that's probably still Muammar al-Qaddafi, entrenched behind his forces in Tripoli. This stance goes back as far as the French Revolution, when the U.S. recognized the country's new Republican government while Europe's monarchies still regarded it as illegitimate.
(This is not the same thing as having diplomatic relations with a country. The U.S. may not have an embassy in Iran but doesn't question that the Islamic Republic does, in fact, rule the country.)
But there have certainly been exceptions to the rule. An instructive case is the Woodrow Wilson administration's refusal to extend recognition to Mexican dictator Vicotriano Huerta, who took power in a 1913 coup. (Historian Peter Henderson provides some good background on this case in this, unfortunately gated, article.)
Huerta was undoubtedly in control of the Mexican government and had been in negotiations with the Taft administration, which had been leaning toward recognition. But incoming President Wilson saw the recognition issue differently, arguing that "We can have no sympathy with those who seek to seize the power of government to advance their own personal interests or ambitions."
In addition to democratic principles and suspicion that Huerta had been involved with the assassination of his predecessor Francisco Madero, there were fears that the new government would threaten U.S. business interests -- including a plan to build a dam on the Mexican side of the Colorado river. After months of negotiations, and after most U.S. allies had already recognized Huerta, Wilson layed out what came to be known as the "watchful waiting" policy in his 1913 State of the Union address. His rationale should be familiar to those who have been watching the debate over recognition in Libya over the last few months:
There is but one cloud upon our horizon. That has shown itself to the south of us, and hangs over Mexico. There can be no certain prospect of peace in America until Gen. Huerta has surrendered his usurped authority in Mexico; until it is understood on all hands, indeed, that such pretended governments will not be countenanced or dealt with by-the Government of the United States. We are the friends of constitutional government in America; we are more than its friends, we are its champions; because in no other way can our neighbors, to whom we would wish in every way to make proof of our friendship, work out their own development in peace and liberty. Mexico has no Government. The attempt to maintain one at the City of Mexico has broken down, and a mere military despotism has been set up which has hardly more than the semblance of national authority. It originated in the usurpation of Victoriano Huerta, who, after a brief attempt to play the part of constitutional President, has at last cast aside even the pretense of legal right and declared himself dictator. As a consequence, a condition of affairs now exists in Mexico which has made it doubtful whether even the most elementary and fundamental rights either of her own people or of the citizens of other countries resident within her territory can long be successfully safeguarded, and which threatens, if long continued, to imperil the interests of peace, order, and tolerable life in the lands immediately to the south of us. Even if the usurper had succeeded in his purposes, in despite of the constitution of the Republic and the rights of its people, he would have set up nothing but a precarious and hateful power, which could have lasted but a little while, and whose eventual downfall would have left the country in a more deplorable condition than ever. But he has not succeeded. He has forfeited the respect and the moral support even of those who were at one time willing to see him succeed. Little by little he has been completely isolated. By a little every day his power and prestige are crumbling and the collapse is not far away. We shall not, 1 believe, be obliged to alter our policy of watchful waiting. And then, when the end comes, we shall hope to see constitutional order restored in distressed Mexico by the concert and energy of such of her leaders as prefer the liberty of their people to their own ambitions.
Wilson hoped that that non-recognition would help hasten the collapse of the Huerta regime. But it wasn't until July, 1914 when Huerta, faced with a growing domestic insurgency led by Pancho Villa and the U.S. occupation of Veracruz, that he finally abdicated.
Wilson's creative interpretation of the law of recognition helped establish the international illegitimacy of Huerta's regime and certainly contributed to his downfall. All the same, U.S. courts and politicians have generally felt uncomfortable applying subjective or moral criteria to recognition, and Franklin Roosevelt restored the traditional "de facto" recognition criteria to dealing with America's Latin American neighbors. (Another exception to the rule would come decades later when the U.S. recognized Taiwan's leaders as the legitimate government of mainland China.)
Recognition is an ambiguous business and the rules have never been hard and fast. But all the same, Libya's rebels probably have Wilson to thank for today's announcement.