Washington’s track record over the decades of selecting honest, effective, and democratic political leaders to support in developing countries is as dismal as the government’s attempts to pick economic winners in this country. We have endured a lengthy series of foreign policy equivalents of the notorious Solyndra scandal. I discuss that depressing record in a new article over at the American Conservative.
U.S. officials habitually make one of two blunders. On some occasions, they back a foreign client who is willing to do Washington’s bidding, even if that person lacks meaningful internal political support from the very beginning. On other occasions, the chosen client may initially have respectable domestic backing, but soon dissipates that support through pervasive corruption and brutality, often funded by U.S. tax dollars.
Washington’s diplomatic love affair with Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, was a prime example of the first type of fiasco. U.S. policymakers during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush wildly overestimated Chalabi’s popularity inside Iraq. When the U.S-led military intervention ousted Saddam Hussein, American officials acted as though the Iraqi people would choose Chalabi as their new leader virtually by acclamation. The actual extent of his domestic support became apparent in Iraq’s first free parliamentary elections in 2005. Chalabi’s party received a paltry 0.5 percent of the vote and failed to win a single seat.
The enthusiasm for Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines was a typical example of the second type of embarrassment. Marcos won his first election as president in 1966 in legitimate fashion, but he soon displayed all the usual characteristics of a tinpot dictator. Yet Washington continued to back him diplomatically and financially until his imminent overthrow in a popular revolution could no longer be ignored. More recently, Washington’s enthusiasm for Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai and Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki proved equally misplaced over the long term.
Those experiences (and many others) should teach U.S. officials not to fall in love with superficially attractive foreign political clients. Instead of reflexively backing glib figures who are adept at telling American policymakers what they know those policymakers want to hear, we should approach all foreign players with caution, coldly evaluating how much popularity and staying power they are likely to command. The United States also needs to be far more skeptical about whether backing any particular client serves the best interests of the American republic.