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US Foreign Policy Tainted By Support For Dictators – OpEd

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But even support for dictators and corrupt regimes is fickle, being unabashedly contingent on self-interest and geo-political objectives  

The United States has been a functioning democracy since 1787, improving its quality from time to time with the evolution of its society and culture. In the modern post-colonial era, the US has taken upon itself the task of promoting democracy in the newly emerging countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, in a replay of the British Empire’s concept of the “White man’s burden”.

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The US had helped overthrow tyrannical regimes. Japan, Italy, and Germany were rid of fascists and militarists. It engineered the overthrow of Communist dictatorships in the USSR and Eastern Europe, and authoritarian regimes in the Philippines, Egypt, Panama, South Korea and Taiwan.

But America’s democratic crusade has by no means been impeccable.  It has backed dictatorships to the hilt to meet its narrow and opportunistic geo-political and strategic ends.  Even more regrettably, when its geopolitical purposes are no longer served by the regimes it props up, support is withdrawn, often abruptly, to the detriment of the country in question. The hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan left the beleaguered pro-US Afghan government, its army and the Afghan people to the tender mercies of the Taliban’s brutal cadres.  

A reading of Max Boot’s opinion piece in The Washington Post and Howard W.French in Foreign Policy would show that this approach has characterized US foreign policy for quite a long time. In an article in the Post entitled: “Yes, the U.S. sometimes supports warlords and dictators. So when should we stop? (October 19, 2018), Max Boot quotes the iconic President Franklin D. Roosevelt as saying about a US-supported dictator: “He may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B”. This maxim has “frequently served as a credo for US foreign policy,” Boot adds.

In its fight against expanding communism, the US supported Fulgencio Batista, Anastasio Somoza, Ferdinand Marcos, Mobutu Sese Seko, Augusto Pinochet, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Zia ul-Haq, Syngman Rhee and Suharto, Boot recalls.

The US has kept supporting Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman (MBS) who is believed to have ordered the torture and murder of The Washington Post’s Istambul Correspondent Jamal Khashoggi, despite an outcry in the American media. President Biden’s recent visit to Riyadh and his meeting with MBS, appear to firm up US-MBS ties. 

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Quoting Dexter Filkins’ article in the New Yorker Boot points out that MBS has a “forceful way” of settling disputes. When a land-registry official hesitated to help him seize a property, he sent an envelope with a bullet in it to help the official make up his mind. Boot further says that  MBS’ military intervention in Yemen caused at least 16,000 civilian deaths. Further, MBS had “engineered the kidnapping of the prime minister of Lebanon. He, had blockaded Qatar, and held five hundred of the richest men in the Saudi kingdom hostage to extract billions of dollars in ransom. Many of the detainees were physically abused. “

In his latest piece in Foreign Policy entitled The echoes of America’s hypocrisy abroad: Decades of Western support for dictators have caused a crisis of democracy Howard W French, Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism says that the dictators of Haiti, the Philippines and Togo were allies or clients of the West. This was at the height of the Cold War. At that time, “it scarcely seemed to matter to Washington (or, in Togo’s case, Paris) how big a bastard a ruler was as long as he was, as the adage had it, “our bastard.”

To prevent the spread of Soviet-style communism in the Americas, the US ignored the Duvalier family’s massive acquisition of ill-gotten wealth in Haiti. In the case of the Philippines and Zaire also, this was so, as the objective was to stop the penetration of Soviet and Chinese influence. This objective completely over-rode the larger policy ideal of fostering democracy. 

When the US-backed Marcos couple fled from the Philippines in 1986, it was found that they had robbed anything between US$ 5 billion and US$ 10 billion from the Central Bank of the Philippines. In Zaire, the US helped Mobutu Sese Seko capture power after he got Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba murdered “with Western support”. The geopolitical reason for this step was the containment of Soviet influence in Africa. The US took no notice of the fact that its protégé Mobutu had robbed from his poverty stricken country U$ 15 billion, French points out. 

The US-backed Rwanda launched a covert invasion of Zaire in 1996 to install Laurent-Désiré Kabila. He became a ruthless dictator. When French (who was then a foreign correspondent) questioned the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during her visit to Congo in 1997, she praised Kabila saying that he had made a “strong start” and was moving toward the goals of “honest government and the rule of law.” 

Nothing could be farther from the truth French asserts, and adds: “Millions of people were killed during that war, including through acts the United Nations later likened to genocide. But Washington had no appetite for looking into such matters.”

Adding to the dismal record is the way the US has cynically dropped its allies and protégés when these become dispensable. Marcos and Mobutu were dropped like hot potatoes when their depredations became an embarrassment. 

French attributes US policy to “a short-sightedness about US responsibility and power.” US and Western efforts to promote democracy in other countries, especially in the Third World, have been “paltry and inconsistent”. Indicating the American failure to make sincere efforts to restore democracy, French points to the Philippines, where Marcos’s son has just been elected President. 

“This is a natural result of the inadequate work done over the last generation to give more institutional depth to democracy and give it more resonance in the lives of citizens,” he says.

What is more alarming is that now, an anti-democracy trend in the supposedly civilized West is discernable, French says. “In many parts of the West, led by the United States, populist demagogues now commonly flout the underlying principles of democracy. It is time that we see this crisis of democracy as it spreads in more and more Western countries as being linked with outcomes in the so-called developing world, where decades of Western mouthing of the values of democracy overseas with no corresponding investment have finally come home to roost.”

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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