The U.S. fondness for supposedly friendly dictators is not confined to policy toward Egypt. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow Iran’s elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953 and restore the Shah to power as an unconstrained monarch. U.S. leaders repeatedly fawned over the Shah as a great friend of the United States. Perhaps the most sickening example came from President Jimmy Carter in a toast during a state visit to Tehran on New Year’s Eve 1977. “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled regions of the world. This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you,” Carter gushed. Apparently concluding that America’s vocal enthusiasm for the Shah and his policies during the previous quarter century did not link the United States sufficiently to his conduct, the president emphasized: “We have no other nation on earth who [sic] is closer to us in planning for our mutual military security.” But according to Carter, the United States and Iran shared more than security interests. “The cause of human rights is one that also is shared deeply by our people and by the leaders of our two nations.” Yet Amnesty International and other groups had already documented the Shah’s systematic violations of human rights. And barely a year after Carter’s effusive toast, the regime of the Shah that Iranian people supposedly respected, admired and loved was in ruins, with the ousted monarch fleeing into exile.
The enthusiasm for corrupt, thuggish autocrats has been a bipartisan phenomenon. A few years after Carter’s astonishing toast to the Shah, Vice President George H. W. Bush engaged in similar behavior toward Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos. Bush emphasized the U.S. government’s respect and admiration for Marcos: “We stand with you sir .… We love your adherence to democratic principle and to the democratic processes.” The reality was that the Philippines strongman had been a full‐fledged dictator since his imposition of martial law in 1972, and he had displayed pronounced authoritarian tendencies and practices for several years before that official proclamation. His rule was also so astonishingly corrupt that it nearly destroyed the Philippines’ economy.
Washington’s preference for cooperative authoritarians instead of the uncertainty of democracy among Third World allies and client states was evident in the staunch support for a series of South Korean dictators, including Syngman Rhee in the 1950s and Park Chung Hee in the 1960s and 1970s. But the most notorious example came in 1980 when another military coup overthrew a civilian government that had briefly emerged following Park’s assassination. Younger Koreans were especially inclined to place much of the blame for the latest coup on the United States. General John Wickham, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, fanned such suspicions when he stated that Koreans were “lemming‐like” and “needed a strong leader.” The evidence suggests that Washington’s flirtation with friendly dictators has not paid off. It is a myopic policy that betrays America’s professed political values for short‐term, and often illusory, gains. Embracing friendly dictators risks nasty blowback when oppressed populations blame Washington for propping up the tyrants that have looted and brutalized their countries. Such consequences are most evident in places like Nicaragua and Iran. Washington’s cozy ties to the Somoza family that dominated Nicaragua for more than four decades led to the virulently anti-U.S. Sandinista regime of Daniel Ortega. The situation in Iran is even worse. One cannot grasp the vehemence and persistence of Tehran’s hatred of the United States without understanding the resentment at Washington’s complicity in the overthrow of Mossadegh and the subsequent patronage of the Shah over the next quarter century. The blowback in such places as South Korea and the Philippines has mercifully been much milder, but even in those countries, suspicion of U.S. intentions lingers decades after the dictatorships have passed into history.
Unfortunately, there are few signs that U.S. officials have learned that their preference for authoritarians is both sleazy and counterproductive. The ongoing embrace of el‐Sisi confirms that Washington is still alarmingly fond of friendly dictators.