Machiavelli would be proud. Despite recurrently using the spread of democracy across the middle east as a justification for the Iraq war, the US continues to support dictators, tyrants, and coup-leaders worldwide. Let’s have a brief history lesson. And I’m not talking about Eisenhower era support of Batista. I’m talking about much more recent history.
Remember the failed coup attempt to overthrow the leftist, though legitimately elected, President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez in 2002? The United States quickly came out in support of the coup leaders but quickly back peddled when Chavez regained control after less than two days.
Or how about Pakistan today. Purvez Musharraf took power in a military coup in 1999, ousting democratically elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and suspending the constitution twice to maintain power, most recently in November 2007. He has jailed dissidents, jailed a supreme court justice, and generally behaved like a military dictator. As for the argument, he is a strong ally in the war on terror, he only reluctantly agreed to oppose the Taliban under direct threat from the United States. Additionally, scientists in his country provided materials and training for building a nuclear weapon to Libya.
The United States supported the Shah of Iran (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi), the last Shah of 2500 years of continuous monarchy rule. According to Madeleine Albright, “In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Irans popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Massadegh… it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.” While the Shah did succeed in modernizing his country and improving the rights of women, he also ousted and arrested political dissidents, which ultimately lead to popular unrest and his overthrow, which brings us to Iraq.
Once the Shah was overthrown and the fundamentalists took control of the country, the US chose a very strange bedfellow to support in the middle east: Saddam Hussein. Saddam was another brutal dictator who came to power 1979. During the Iran-Iraq war, the US provided military and economic aid to Saddam. Importantly, during this war, Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran. Additionally, he used chemical weapons in a genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurds. Not exactly a role model for a US ally. Of course, relations soured when Saddam attacked and crippled a US warship.
Finally, in a quest to secure a steady supply of oil from the middle east, the US has formally supported the oppressive and corrupt Saudi family since the 1940s. Despite the fact that it’s a monarchy, that women have little to no rights, that dissent is suppressed, that 15 of 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia, that there have been two major worldwide oil price shocks, the US still finds the Saudi family good friends. It’s really astonishing.
The list goes on.
On the one hand, you could argue that this is simply Machiavelli in action. The ends justify the means. The US secures outcomes in its national interest but has to stomach relations with a few unsavory people. However, in almost all cases, US support of corrupt regimes has ended in disastrous consequences for our own national self interest. Support the corrupt regime of Batista got us exasperated Cubans and 50 years of Castro. Support of the corrupt Shah got us a hostage crisis and 30 years of an extremist government openly developing nuclear weapons. Support of Iraq got us two wars in 20 years. Support Saudi Arabia got us 2 oil shocks and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
It’s time to take a different approach to foreign policy. Instead of supporting whichever dictator suits our interests at any given moment, instead of propping up corrupt regimes, let’s have a more principled approach.
Let’s stop meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. It’s a hard habit to break, but it’s time we did.
Let’s encourage economic development around the globe. Ultimately, economic growth leads to a middle class, which leads to less extremism, which leads to more political freedoms.
Let’s stop supporting corrupt regimes and dictators because they can help our interests in the short term. That just leads to internal resentment and ultimately radicals overthrowing the government anyway.
Finally, let’s tie economic cooperation to human rights records.