U.S. leaders routinely emphasize that America’s foreign policy is based on support for the expansion of freedom around the world. But as I point out in a recent article in the National Interest Online, Washington’s behavior frequently does not match the idealistic rhetoric. Too often, U.S. policymakers seem to favor even brutal and corrupt authoritarian allies over boisterous, unpredictable democratic regimes.
During the Cold War, U.S. administrations enthusiastically embraced “friendly” autocratic governments in such places as South Korea and the Philippines—even when there were viable democratic alternatives. Because it was uncertain whether democratic governments would be as cooperative with U.S. foreign policy aims, officials preferred dealing with more compliant autocrats. Worse, U.S. leaders repeatedly misrepresented such allies to the American people as noble members of the “free world.”
The tendency was especially pronounced in the Middle East, and that cynical policy has persisted longer there than in other regions. It began early, as 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. The Shah became America’s chosen Persian Gulf gendarme for the next quarter century, despite the regime’s appalling human rights record and pervasive corruption. Elsewhere in the region, Washington developed a cozy relationship with Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak that lasted three decades, even as he and his military cronies looted and brutalized that unhappy country.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems just as hypocritical as its predecessors when it comes to relations with Egypt and other Middle East countries. U.S. leaders were reluctant to cut Mubarak loose even as pro-democracy demonstrations surged throughout Egypt in 2011. In a PBS interview, Vice President Joe Biden even objected to describing Mubarak as a dictator and rejected calls for him to step down.