Modern Dictators: Third World Coupmakers, Strongmen, and Populist Tyrants » Chapter 12-America and the Dictators
America and the Dictators
Dealing with Third World dictatorships has tested both the power and values of the
United States. The rise, fall, wars, and courting, or criticizing, of Third World dictators
has been the central issue shaping its foreign involvement, particularly since the U.S.-
Soviet nuclear stalemate makes the Third World the arena of superpower competition.
The behavior and troubles of Third World dictators have allowed each side to measure its
strength as well as bred regional conflicts and set afire crises.
Each era of U.S. foreign policy is marked by its view of these problems and
ability to handle them. Liberals and conservatives chose distinctive approaches to the
collapse of allied dictators and to friction with their replacements in China, Cuba,
Vietnam, Ethiopia, Iran, and Nicaragua. The puzzle of how to deal with terrorism from
Syria and Libya, idiosyncratic dictators in Africa, modernizing juntas in Latin America or
South Korea, and struggles for democracy in the Philippines and Nicaragua preoccupied
U.S. leaders while challenging Americans’ ideas about the rest of the globe, setting off
passionate, fundamental debates at home.
Americans are unusual among nations in demanding that their foreign policy
stand for something rather than merely provide a tool for security and survival. Debates
over how best to define this purpose have followed a curious cycle, as different lessons
have been drawn from apparently contradictory historical experiences. Entanglements
abroad or the fall of pro-U.S. traditional dictators encourage liberal critiques; Soviet
aggression or the birth of anti-American modern dictatorships reinforce conservative
The American thought that foreign policy should improve the world made another
country’s style of government a factor relevant to the conduct of diplomatic relations.
The popularity of this idea is shown by its centrality in the thinking of two such different
Presidents as jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Carter’s human rights policy aimed to
encourage better treatment of citizens by all kinds of Third World dictatorships and
suggested that the United States align itself with seemingly inevitable tides of change.
Reagan’s doctrine equated communism with tyranny and advocated U.S. assistance to
guerrillas battling Third World leftist modern dictators.
The idea that America might escape the world or reshape the globe in its own
image is a legacy of geography and history. Protected by Atlantic and Pacific moats, the
nineteenth-century United States was secure in its distance from other great powers.
Preoccupied with its own expansion and development, U.S. political culture came to view
international activism as unwelcome and dangerous. Presidents starting with Woodrow
Wilson tried to justify an energetic foreign policy by portraying it as a struggle for
freedom which would “make the world safe for democracy.” With an unbroken tradition
of representative government and progress at home, Americans could see dictatorship and
international conflicts mainly as aberrations that could be eliminated by better
international understanding and greater diplomatic effort.
“Nowhere,” historian Walter Laqueur wrote, “has there been so little
understanding of how a dictatorship works or so little appreciation of the importance of
ideology (or religion or nationalism) in politics. In no other country has there been so
much good will-which is to say willingness to ignore or at least belittle the existence of
genuine conflicts among nations, ideologies, and political systems.” Consequently,
Americans are more inclined than other nations to want to convert foreign dictatorships
into democracies but are less equipped to understand how such systems work and why
they survive or fail.
The prevailing American understanding of and attitude toward dictatorship, then,
have both admirable and naïve elements. Reality often makes the United States modify its
reformist impulse. Responsibilities and self-defense force it to deal with or even support
many governments-to avoid or defuse conflict if for no other reason-whose political
systems are not to Americans’ liking. In a tough, dangerous world, practicality must often
take priority over preference or purity.
Those arguing that the United States should take a more thoroughly realpolitik
approach delight in quoting the early statesman and President John Quincy Adams that
America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the
freedom of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” But even Adams
shared the American obsession with foreign policy as a struggle for justice and progress:
“The Royalists everywhere detest and despise us,” whose political principles “make the
throne of every European monarch rock under him.” Democracy was “destined to cover
the … globe.” He cautioned against intervention only because he considered the young
nation too fragile to risk it, the international struggles too imperialistic to make
involvement worthwhile, and the favorable outcome for the forces of freedom so
inevitable as to make it unnecessary.
Adams was correct in explaining that idealism can be practiced only when firmly
rooted in a realistic assessment of world. Yet American idealism also has something
practical to teach realism: Morality and self-interest often converge. The United States
has a successful political and economic system which makes it a more attractive ally and
model than the USSR. American objectives like peace, stability, and development can be
more effectively realized through a proliferation of democracy. Democratic states make
stronger allies-less subject to revolutions that produce anti-Americanism and
dictatorships-and benefit both U.S. interests and their own citizens.
This strategy can work, of course, only in countries like Argentina or the
Philippines, where there already are strong moderate, democratic traditions and political
forces. And this predominantly liberal thesis fell into disfavor after revolutions in Iran
and Nicaragua had replaced traditional, pro-U.S. dictatorships with modern, anti-
American ones. Conservatives argued that the United States would have been better off to
have supported the old regimes. Liberals equate pro-Americanism with democracy;
conservatives equate democracy with anticommunism.
Of course, the liberals’ prodemocratic strategy also criticizes the Soviet bloc’s
human rights record while conservatives sometimes pressure rightist, pro-U.S.
dictatorships. The point here is the two versions’ common themes: U.S. foreign policy
should side with democracies against dictatorships and try to convert dictatorships into
democracies. Both sides argue that such a strategy strengthens U.S. interests, combats
Soviet expansion, contributes to regional security, and promotes the welfare of Third
Routine diplomacy requires the United States to work with incumbent rulers to
obtain base rights, economic benefits, regional and global cooperation, and denial of all
these things to the Soviets. Corporate interests, demanding protection of their holdings,
may influence accommodation or antagonism toward individual dictators. These factors
make human rights and democracy seem troublesome, irrelevant considerations.
Ironically, even the most humanitarian policy presupposes U.S. interaction with dictators
because its influence, including leverage in promoting change, presupposes trade, aid, or
diplomatic relations. Policymakers need a long-term perspective, remembering that a
country and people will exist long after a specific ruler or regime has passed from the
The principal issue setting U.S. policy toward other governments is usually their
behavior toward the United States and USSR. Distinctions must also be drawn between
greater and lesser evils. The USSR’s aggressive behavior and efforts to destroy U.S.
influence encourages the United States to block the emergence of Soviet client or puppet
regimes. What can or should be justified in the name of the U.S.-USSR conflict has
always been a matter of great priority as well as one of tremendous controversy. The
phrase “Free World,” once proudly used to describe the U.S.-led alliance, became a
mockery because the United States so frequently aligned itself with dictatorships or
helped overthrow democratic regimes.
Yet the Cold War and the issue of dictatorship versus democracy-of which, after
all, the U.S.-Soviet struggle is a case in point-cannot be fully separated. The conflict is
not merely a competition between two great powers, as the realists would have it, or of
two essentially identical superpowers, as much of the Third World claims, but between a
free society and a dictatorship. American conservatives have rightly pointed out that the
idea of “moral equivalency” between the United States and the Soviet Union is very
much at variance with the facts. But liberals are correct in bringing out the sad reality that
U.S. support for traditional dictatorships has helped bring death and misery to people
around the world, who experience the United States’ raw power as often as they do its
good intentions. Such actions, even when unintentional, discredited the United States and
encouraged the view that Washington and Moscow were, in fact, interchangeable.
Discarding the U.S. qualitative superiority over the USSR is to lose one of America’s
greatest advantages in the struggle.
The Cold War context affected domestic U.S. debates about dictatorships in
another way as well. Conservatives often argued that traditional dictatorships should be
defended against all comers because they were anti-Communist, sometimes implying that
they were more consistently, effectively so than alternative civilian democratic
governments. A corollary was to assume that radical nationalist modern dictatorships and
most opposition movements were necessarily pro-Soviet. Liberals, in contrast, often
idealized forces fighting against traditional dictators while accepting at face value
modern dictatorships’ claims of success and rationalization for repression. The accuracy
of these varying views of dictators depended on the specific country in question. Neither
set of assumptions was always right or always wrong.
While the American world view, Cold War conflict, and diplomatic expediency
all shaped U.S. policy toward Third World dictators and revolutions, ignorance of local
conditions was also an important factor. Policymakers often misread the survivability of
the incumbent regime, understated the likelihood of political upheaval, and confused
nationalist or neutralist forces with irrevocably pro-Soviet ones. As has been already
pointed out, most modern dictatorships–even those with radical or Marxist views-are not
Soviet satellites. But, of course, these modern dictators are also not democratic.
A lack of knowledge about Third World societies has repeatedly caused problems
for the United States. An illustrative tale about the ignorance factor is reporter Bernard
Diederich’s description of an incident during then Vice President Richard Nixon’s visit to
Haiti in the 1950s. Nixon stopped a young peasant woman riding a donkey. “Tell this
cocoye to let me go on my way,” she said in Creole, using an unflattering Haitian
expression. Nixon’s interpreter translated this as “She says she is happy to meet the Vice
President.” Nixon asked about her family. The woman answered she had no husband and
three children. The translator rendered this as “She is engaged.” Nixon then placed a hand
on the donkey’s rump and asked, “What is the donkey’s name?” Her reply was “He is
crazy. It is called a donkey.” The interpreter said, “She says it hasn’t got a name, and asks
to be excused because it is getting late.” It is often hard to translate between differing
cultures and types of politics. Such misleading dialogues, tragic or comic, have been
common in the history of U.S. foreign policy.
Americans have additional perceptual shortcomings in coping with Third World
dictators. A false analogy between domestic politics-where the U.S. government has far
greater control-and foreign policy means that Americans overestimate U.S. responsibility
and power for shaping international events. And foreign rulers do not necessarily look at
the world or define proper behavior in the same way as do Americans. Their actions may
be judged by American values, but they must first be understood in their own contexts of
history, psychology, and beliefs.
Thus, Third World dictators often take extreme positions or seemingly suicidal
actions that appear irrational to Americans but are the reflection of the dictatorship’s
ideology and requirements for staying in power. This factor explains Iran’s handling of
the hostage crisis and Khomeini’s continuation of a bloody war with Iraq, the domestic
and regional political advantages for Arab leaders refusing to make peace with Israel,
Mexico’s friendly stance toward Cuba and Nicaragua, the Argentine junta’s attack on the
Falklands, Tanzania’s stubbornly disastrous agricultural policy, and Soviet behavior as
well. All these dictatorships operate on different criteria from those of democracies, not
only because their nations’ histories and regional situations are different but also because
their internal politics are different. They are not held accountable by elections or by an
independent press or judiciary. Dictators generally do not cut military spending to protect
living standards, for example, because they have to worry about the army’s loyalty, not
about parliamentary votes or demonstrations.
Equally, the idea that international conflicts result mainly from misunderstandings
disregards the fact that there often are real clashes between nations’ interests and goals.
While diplomacy can bean important and productive means of limiting or resolving
problems, leaders-figuratively as well as actually-speak different languages. Nor is the
solution merely a matter of persuading Qaddafi, Castro, or Khomeini that the United
States has good intentions. Even aside from the fact that these leaders’ world views and
interpretations of history are inherently hostile, the use of anti-Americanism as a tool for
domestic control and mobilization may preclude policies that would make possible good
relations with the United States.
International terrorism, for example, is less and less the work of crazies-or those
driven to distraction by philosophical angst or unbearable grievances-and more and more
the product of careful political calculation. Most terrorism in the Middle East functions as
an adjunct of Libyan, Syrian, or Iranian foreign policy and is designed to achieve very
specific aims. These include such major objectives as: Libyan efforts to dominate the
Arab world and to overthrow all moderate regimes; Syrian attempts to dominate Lebanon
and prevent Jordan from making peace with Israel; Iranian goals of sparking Islarnic
fundamentalist revolutions and gaining hegemony over the Persian Gulf; PLO objectives
of destroying Israel, mobilizing support for its intransigent policy, and wiping out any
independent-minded Palestinians. All these forces want to eliminate U.S. influence in the
region; Syria, Libya, and PLO are closely allied with Soviet regional interests. Similarly,
since Khomeini, Qaddafi, and Assad each seek to dominate the Middle East, U.S. support
for the countries they would have as their victims-not only Israel but even more
immediately such states as Egypt, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia-raises the dictator’s wrath
and leads to terrorist attacks against Americans. The regime itself often sets off a
confrontation by its own behavior, making America a more determined enemy by treating
it as one. Obviously, it is very difficult for the West to compromise with these
motivations. A belief that the central problem is one of a lack of communication fails to
comprehend the ruthless and aggressive nature of these regimes.
The American belief in the illegitimacy of dictatorship as a form of government
may also lead to underestimating its staying power. Dictators are seen as innately
unpopular, repression as intrinsically unsuccessful, and misgovernment as creating an
inevitably successful democratic opposition. Such a view emerges from the history of
nineteenth-century democratic revolutions but does not take into account contemporary
dictators’ more sophisticated techniques for control and generating support. In politics,
after all, victory often does go to the most ruthless.
Many of the West’s romantic illusions about the Third World have been dispelled.
Regimes there proved as aggressive, bigoted, and brutal as any imperialists toward their
own people and neighbors. There is much truth in a comment by Martin Herz, a career
Foreign Service officer, that only after observing how an opposition behaves after
coming to power can one appreciate how easy it is for those outside government to
condemn dishonesty and corruption while claiming to have “the purest motives, to be
selfless in their devotion to the public weal, incorruptible, and [to possess] policies that
promise instant solutions to the country’s problems.”
Nor is the miscomprehension all on one side. On the one hand, Third World
governments alternately fear the U.S.-Soviet rivalry as a threat to their sovereignty or
seek to exploit it for their own advantage. President Nyerere once warned that U.S.-
Soviet competition might set off a new “scramble for Africa.” On the other hand, the
motives and objectives of the United States are often caricatured.
These myths about the United States overestimate its omnipotence, omnipresence,
and belligerency. Modern dictators both believe and propagandize that previous
traditional dictators were dependent on the United States; traditional dictators often try to
cow their own people by claiming a U.S. mandate to rule. These assertions may have a
historical basis–as with the U.S. role as patron in Latin America–or can be a hysterical
overreaction or cynical organizing tactic. “To be anti-American nowadays is to shout
with the mob,” wrote British writer and socialist George Orwell in 1948. Today such
sentiments can activate powerful nationalist emotions and very large crowds.
Such patterns can be seen even in a rightist traditional dictatorship like Chile. In
1985 the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration sought to extend by 500
yards an airstrip on Easter Island-a Chilean-ruled dot of land in the Pacific Ocean-as an
emergency landing site for the space shuttle. Wild rumors spread through Chile that the
United States was building a missile base. Christian Democratic leader Radomiro Tomic
charged, “The security and sovereignty of … the entire country could be affected”; the left
claimed Chile would become a target for Soviet missiles. Student demonstrators protested
that the United States was backing the Pinochet dictatorship in exchange for a base. The
opposition branded the government as a traitor and U.S. puppet. But actually General
Pinochet wanted this controversy publicized to give the impression that he enjoyed full
U.S. support, and he accordingly waived the usual heavy press censorship. As Latin
America expert Mark Falcoff explained, the regime “desires these relations desperatelyas
if in fact its survival did depend upon it.” The Shah and Marcos also tried to convince
their people that the United States uncritically backed them, a strategy which heightened
anti-Americanism among those opposing the dictators.
Modern dictatorships often use purported U.S. enmity for the same reason. Anti-
Americanism can be both a sincere belief partly justified by history and a useful strategy
for ruling at home and advancing ambitions abroad. Fidel Castro portrays his revolution
as liberating Cuba from U.S. domination. True independence, he argues, necessitates a
radical break with this past, when reformers were too moderate and compromising to
succeed. Castro has manipulated anti-American nationalism to label certain groups (the
middle class) and institutions (free speech) as partners of foreign imperialism. And this
tactic rationalizes the controls the dictator needs to maintain power permanently.
Restraints on freedom have been justified as guarding against Yankee intervention or a
return to the hated old U.S.-sponsored order. Finally, anti-American ideology reinforces
Castro’s regional strategy. Those opposing the dictator’s aggression or subversion are
deemed betrayers of their nation’s and region’s interests and identity. U.S.
countermeasures against the expansion of Cuban influence in Latin America “prove”
hostile U.S. intentions and reinforce the regime’s claims.
Sometimes, of course, suspicion of the United States is quite rational. Opponents
who come to power are bitter about U.S. support for the old regime: Radicals are angry
about past American backing for conservatives; civilians complain about U.S.
involvement in military coups. A whole generation may have to pass-the modern
dictatorship entrenched, memories faded, ambitions moderated-before antagonisms are
soothed. The evolution of Egypt from Nasser to Sadat and of China from Mao to Deng
Xiaoping are two examples of this pattern.
Anti-Americanism may also bea reaction to Western cultural influence. America’s
power and success breed both jealousy and fear. The incredible spread of U.S. films,
products, music, and literature overruns markets and threatens to drive local artists and
artisans out of business. In adapting so fully to these goods and ideas, elites in traditional
dictatorships may be alienated from their own people-a problem symbolized by the
Shah’s skiing trips to his Swiss chalet and Somoza’s West Point training-making it easy
for opponents to question their nationalism. A loss of cultural distinctiveness is often
thought to presage the destruction of independence.
Similarly, U.S. economic power-multinationals that export their profits and
compete with local enterprises, banks to which the country is indebted-stir resentment
that the modern dictator shares and exploits, claiming Western companies underpay for
crops and resources, mistreat workers, remove potential development capital, and meddle
in local politics. Third World leaders attribute the lack of past progress to Western
exploitation. Nationalizing foreign-owned land or companies provides a simple, popular
way of raising cash and concentrating wealth in the regime’s hands. Profits can be
plowed into domestic projects; landholdings can be redistributed to peasants, who
become government supporters.
While historical, cultural, and economic issues create friction between modern
dictatorships and the United States, there are also countervailing forces. Third World
regimes, particularly in Africa, desperately need American aid and avidly seek U.S.
investment, technology, and loans. But compromise is often accompanied by an increase
in radical rhetoric and political control in order to prove the regime has neither sold out
nor gone soft. Dictators are determined to ensure that an opening to the West does not
imply any import of U.S. influence, political structures, or capitalism.
Often the United States is popular among the common people as a symbol of high
living standards, more rights, and a source of movies, music, and mass-produced goods.
Traditional dictators also have an incentive to like the United States as a sugar daddy for
aid, weapons, and support against internal opposition or radical neighbors. A modern
dictator’s interests can be quite different. He has often overthrown a pro-U.S. regime,
struck against U.S. business, and received arms from the USSR. He is tempted to alter
Franklin Roosevelt’s dictum and conclude that the Soviets may be SOBS, but they are his
SOBS. The dictator must consider whether better relations with the United States will
reinforce or threaten his rule. The more popular America or things American are among
his own people, the harder the modern dictator must work to defuse and discredit its
All these themes can be clearly seen in the history of U.S. relations with Third
World dictators. If they do not recall and understand these experiences, Americans are
doomed to be shocked, confused, and disappointed by future developments. The
evolution of U. S. policy toward Third World dictatorships can be traced through several
overlapping periods whose premises and lessons have become part of contemporary
thinking on the issue: the Cold War period, the 1960s, and the period of the Vietnam
Clearly, the Cold War competition with the USSR, the single most important
issue for U.S. foreign policy since 1945, had a major effect on American policies and
attitudes toward dictatorship. Experience with Soviet deceit and aggression led
to a vision of a Manichaean world in which all states must be either pro-U.S. or pro-
Soviet. Thus, dictatorships friendly with the United States were judged much less
critically than those evincing Marxist or pro-Soviet sympathies. Indeed, American
conservatives often saw Latin American juntas as more secure and stable rulers than
reformist or left-leaning civilian regimes, allowing Third World rightists to justify coups
and repression by claiming that they were only countering Communist threats.
U.S. experience in the 1940s and 1950s was taken as confirming the two-camp
theory and the danger of new-style modern dictatorships aligning with the Soviets. The
overthrow of Chinese dictator Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist victory in 1949
began a pattern of foreign revolution and domestic controversy that was to be repeated
over Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. Chiang’s regime had been
accurately criticized by China experts as too corrupt, unpopular, and badly organized to
defeat Mao’s Communist forces. in addition to doubts over whether Chiang could be
saved, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman rejected intervention in China as too huge a task
for the United States. State Department specialists knew Mao was a dedicated
Communist but believed that Chinese nationalism would ultimately prevail over Soviet
Although these perceptions proved accurate in the long run, the People’s Republic
of China first became a firm ally of the USSR as well as a doctrinaire Communist state.
American conservatives attacked the White House and State Department for “allowing”
China to become Communist. Senator Joe McCarthy and the Republican party even
branded U.S. China policy as treason. The controversy over China had a lasting effect.
Although Americans remained uncomfortable about traditional dictatorships, the danger
of Communist takeovers and the fear of domestic political uproars discouraged later U.S.
Presidents from pressuring such allies to change. Movements that appeared nationalist or
radical were viewed with suspicion as pro-Soviet Communists in disguise.
This lesson was applied elsewhere. President Dwight Eisenhower wrote of
Egypt’s Nasser in his memoirs, “If [he] was not a communist, he certainly succeeded in
making us very suspicious of him.” Fear that Iran’s nationalist Mossadegh government
was or would become a Communist-dominated regime was a major incentive for
launching the U.S.-backed pro-Shah coup there in 1953. Similarly, the U.S. ambassador
to a Guatemalan reformist regime, overthrown by a U.S.-organized coup in 1954,
commented, “The Arbenz government, beyond any question, was controlled and
dominated by Comrnunists.” When early modern dictators like Nkrumah in Ghana,
Lumumba in the Congo, and Sukarno in Indonesia came to power, they were also viewed
with extreme mistrust. After the Cuban Revolution left-of-center politicians in Latin
America were often seen as potential Communists or men who would pave the way for
Castroite rule. Many of these leaders were overthrown by coups welcomed or even
assisted by the United States.
The early Cold War thus shaped U.S. policy toward Third World dictatorships in
three ways: First, by increasing its international involvement, including foreign aid and
the establishment of military bases abroad, the United States developed closer relations
with many dictatorships. Second, seeking allies against the USSR and keeping China’s
fate in mind, the United States was soft on traditional dictators, lest pressuring or
weakening them enabled pro-Soviet movements to seize power. Finally, emerging
nationalist modern dictators and even some reformist democratic politicians were seen as
Despite these premises, however, the need to face dramatic changes in the Third
World required readjustments in the 1960s, the second period in the development of U.S.
policy toward dictatorships. Liberals pointed out the costs of complacency: The United
States was losing ground. Shame over past U.S. policies, rising anti-Americanism, and
clashes with Third World populist regimes showed that the original Cold War paradigm
did not fit the new circumstances. liberals blamed U.S. policy for fostering immoral and
unstable traditional dictators and driving Third World states toward the USSR.
Decolonization was politically reshaping the world. Emerging states and changing
consciousness created heightened expectations of economic development and demands
for independence or national equality. Experience with the new African states showed
that nationalist modern dictators were not Communists. With dozens of independent
countries pursuing their own interests, neutrality in the East-West struggle became
Acknowledging this new complexity in a 1964 essay, Henry Kissinger wrote, “in
contemporary international affairs a country suffers fewer disadvantages from being
neutral and may gain some international stature through the competition of the major
powers for its allegiance…. Neutrality then becomes an invitation to be wooed.” Yet this
adds “a new element of volatility” because these nations “feel free to practice vis-à-vis
their own neighbors the kind of power politics which they urge the great powers to
abjure.” Alongside and entwined with the East-West conflict were Third World leaders’
own ambitions. Such dictatorships had to be dealt with as independent factors, not as
mere surrogates of Washington or Moscow.
The first U.S. experiment with these issues-conducted, ironically, by an
Eisenhower administration known for its rigid Cold War classification of dictators-turned
out badly. The United States refused to support Fulgencio Batista’s traditional
dictatorship in Cuba against Fidel Castro’s guerrillas, who finally marched victoriously
into Havana in January 1959. Events in Cuba seemed to follow a pattern similar to the
Chinese Revolution. A traditional dictator had again fallen only to be replaced by an anti-
American, pro-Soviet modern dictatorship.
President John Kennedy interpreted Castro’s Marxist course as more proof of the
need for a new kind of strategy toward the non-Communist Third World: help in nation
building to promote stability, democracy, and non-Marxist roads to development; the
favoring of democratic “third” forces that were neither Communist nor traditional
dictators; and to court modern dictators who might moderate their foreign policy.
Before taking office, Kennedy had warned about the danger of thinking “that all
Latin American agitation is Communist-inspired-that every anti-American voice is the
voice of Moscow-and that most citizens of Latin America share our dedication to an
anticommunist crusade to save what we call free enterprise.” He advocated competing
with Moscow and Havana for the support of reformist and nationalist forces. “Can any
American looking at the situation in Latin America feel contented with what’s happening
today, he said soon after taking office in 1961, “when a candidate for the presiency in
Brazil [Janio Quadros] feels it necessary to call not on Washington during the campaign,
but on Castro in Havana” to muster support at home? “The big struggle will be to prevent
the influence of Castro spreading to other countries.” But while Castro supported and
armed guerrillas, traditional dictators and juntas that antagonized their own people were
the true recruiting agents for revolution and communisrn.
In very different ways the Peace Corps and Green Berets symbolized U.S.
policy’s attempt to adapt to changes animating the Third World. They were designed to
teach Third World regimes how to build nations, encourage citizen participation, create
stability, and provide a non-Communist model for development while discouraging and
defeating insurgencies. To compete with traditional dictators’ use of repression and
entrenched custom as well as modern dictators’ combination of repression, change, and
rewards, moderate politicians must organize popular support for reforms, mobilizing and
organizing the masses to carry out and preserve democratic revolutions that provide real
progress and benefits. Such later political figures as José Napoleon Duarte in El Salvador
or Corazon Aquino in the Philippines demonstrated the possibility of this kind of politics.
Despite these tactics, however, the United States was again backing military
coups in Latin America by the second half of the 1960s. The United States hoped, along
with many middle-class Latin Arnerican civilians, that junta rule would better maintain
stability and more effectively defeat Marxist guerrilla movements. Within a year of
Kennedy’s assassination Washington guaranteed Brazil’s link with U.S. influence by
supporting a coup. In short, when faced with a threat from a real or apparent pro-Soviet
group, liberals retreated to the original Cold War preference for traditional dictators
rather than risk the possibility of a radical alternative. Nevertheless, liberals still
maintained that weak, unpopular, and economically incompetent traditional dictators
were at the root of conditions that gave rise to revolutions producing anti-American
Conservatives favored action to protect traditional dictatorships against
communist or alleged Communist takeovers; liberals sought to inoculate against these
threats by helping form new regimes immune to them. Liberal advocacy of pressing
traditional dictators to democratize while trying to improve relations with non-
Communist modern dictatorships was the exact reverse of the conservative version of
Cold War thinking.
The Vietnam War, by testing the liberal and conservative perspectives on
dictatorship, frustrated and reinforced them both. In contrast with its relative inaction
over China and Cuba, the United States made an all-out effort in Indochina first to
transform-as the liberals had suggested-and later to save–as the conservatives demandeda
traditional dictatorship from a Communist-led revolution.
There were bitter paradoxes for both sides. Critics of the war correctly understood
the psychological, organizational, and nationalist assets enjoyed by Hanoi and the
National Liberation Front, but many of them were fooled into thinking that the anti-
Saigon forces were independent and non-Communist. They also correctly analyzed the
corrupt, unpopular nature of the South Vietnamese and Cambodian governments but went
on to conclude that these shortcomings meant such regimes-and inevitably their subjects
as well-deserved to fall to Communist rule.
Supporters of the war also faced dilemmas. They argued, on practical grounds,
that a U.S. defeat and a takeover of Indochina by pro-Soviet Communists would damage
American prestige and power around the world. But the cost of the war was so
tremendous as to have the equivalent, counter-productive effect. Supporters claimed, on
moral grounds, to be preserving a future democratic option for the Vietnamese people.
But this was a difficult position to sustain when tens of thousands were being killed and
the country destroyed in order to save them. And through it all there was no strategy
capable of obtaining victory because the enemy would not give up, and ultimately, the
South Vietnamese government could not sustain itself.
During the war’s first phase the United States tried Kennedy’s strategy of trying
to help, cajole, or force the Ngo Dinh Diem dictatorship to become stronger, more
efficient, and more popular. When it proved incapable of doing so, the administration
backed a military coup. The resulting juntas, however, were even more unstable and less
politically astute than Diem had been.
Despite all the aid and civic action programs, the war came to be fought as a
strictly military engagement, costing the United States a decade of effort, tens of
thousands of lives, a serious loss of prestige, and billions of dollars. North Vietnam, a
streamlined modern dictatorship, was able to combine Sino-Soviet aid, disciplined
organization, nationalism, Ho Chi Minh’s charisma, and repression to win victory over an
uncertain, rickety traditional dictatorship. U.S. intervention shored up the Saigon regimes
but also provided North Vietnam with a nationalist rallying cry. “The Communists won
the war by their resort to systematic brutality,” commented an April 1985 New Republic
editorial, “the anti-Communists lost it by their resort to capricious brutality.” Brutality
alone would have been insufficient, but the contrast between a well-organized,
disciplined Hanoi and a dispirited, drifting Saigon was quite real. North Vietnam and its
southern allies could-while South Vietnam could not-inspire, command, or intimidate
people into enthusiastic support.
The Vietnam War created syndromes that pushed both conservatives and liberals
toward more extreme versions of their earlier views. The former were all the more certain
of the need to defend traditional dictatorships and the centrality of the Communist threat
and Soviet aggression. Former President Nixon wrote, in a book significantly entitled No
More Vietnams, that the U.S. mistake in lndochina was not to back the French colonial
authorities in the 1950s. “Obsessive fear of association with European colonial powers
blinded successive administrations [to the] very simple fact: communism, not
colonialism, was the principal cause of the war in Indochina.” In short, it was neither
popular complaints (social injustice, nationalism) nor identification of the United States
with unpopular causes (colonialism, traditional dictators) that created revolutions and
modern dictatorships but rather Soviet-hatched conspiracies. The Vietnam defeat was due
to a lack of resolve, not to a mistaken policy.
Nixon was wrong because although communism was the central factor in Hanoi’s
system, its major asset was the kind of nationalist, expansionist ambition that marked
other Third World modern dictatorships. Further, it was not communism that gave
credibility to nationalism but vice versa. If anticolonial and anti-American sentiments had
not existed, alongside opposition to the Saigon dictatorship, hard-core Communists might
have had the same beliefs but would have been unable to mobilize so many other people.
Conversely, traditional dictatorships did not fall because they were more evil than
modern dictatorships so much as because they were more vulnerable.
Many liberals drew their own lessons from Vietnam. They attributed the defeat to
the undemocratic nature and lack of nationalist appeal by Saigon’s rulers-to the inherent
weakness of traditional dictators. Moreover, the Sino-Soviet split and other events
demonstrated that radical, even independent Marxist states were not necessarily a threat
to U.S. interests. The loss of prestige over Vietnam and other past policies required a
special effort to prove American willingness to support the forces of democracy,
development, and national sovereignty in the Third World which otherwise might turn
toward the Soviet Union. If U.S. toughness had produced the crisis, U.S. flexibility, even
compassion, was needed to escape it.
This approach had some weaknesses. It tended to underestimate the USSR’s
subversive role and the intrinsic conflicts of interest that made it impossible or dangerous
to woo some modern dictators. Reacting against traditional dictators’ sins, it could be
naïve about their opponents’ objectives. Disillusioned with interventionism’s high cost
and inability to save traditional dictators, these liberals were also reluctant to act
decisively in crises to press their own strategy for democratic transformation. To take
such a strong stand, after all, would also require a form of intervention.
The Carter administration’s human rights policy was popular in theory-building
on a peculiarly American discomfort of being allied with dictators-but controversial in
practice. Believers in realpolitik asked whether it advanced U.S. interests to interfere with
other states’ internal affairs. Conservatives felt that too much pressure was focused on
traditional dictatorships friendly to the West rather than on leftist modern
dictatorships favorable to the USSR.
Carter also criticized the predominance of U.S.-USSR competition in shaping
Washington’s Third World policy. By questioning an “inordinate fear of communism” or
denying the Soviets were “ten feet tall,” Carter was urging that the United States not let
an overestimate of Soviet power and craftiness make it obsessively support traditional
dictatorships, assume that modern dictators would inevitably side with Moscow, or be
convinced that Communists were always better placed to succeed against traditional
dictators. His handling of revolutions that replaced traditional dictatorships with modern
dictatorships in Iran and Nicaragua made Carter subject to much criticism and threw his
premises into question.
Ironically, the defeat of democratic anti-Somoza. forces in Nicaragua was due not
only to the Carter administration’s reluctance to intervene decisively in the transition but
also to past conservative policies identifying the United States with the old dictatorship.
In Iran the United States had far less leverage, and there was no real democratic force or
even a mass constituency for one. Some form of modern dictatorship was inevitable.
These upheavals and resulting problems grew out of a long-term U.S. backing for
unpopular dictators, liberals argued, while conservatives responded that instability was
largely caused by U.S. meddling and Soviet subversion.
Reacting to these same crises, conservatives produced ideas extending their own
past theses. First, respect for U.S. power, rather than an attempt to make America more
popular, was the main priority. Iran dared to hold U.S. hostages only because its Islamic
rulers felt that America, to use an earlier Nixon phrase, was a “pitiful, helpless giant.”
Second, apparent successes for Moscow in the Third World and the Soviet
invasion of Afghanistan reinforced the appeal of a Cold War dichotomy in evaluating
dictatorships. Moscow was again seen as the central force undermining traditional
dictatorships and creating new ones. “The Soviet Union and its proxies,” wrote Nixon,
“…licked their chops and gobbled up South Yemen, Angola, Mozambique, Afghanistan
and Nicaragua…. “
Third, these years also brought deep disillusionment with the promises and
inflated claims of revolutionary transformation, a cynicism well expressed by W. B.
Yeats’ poem “The Great Day,” reflecting a similar experience in Ireland’s turbulent
Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot!
A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot.
Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!
The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.
In considering the era just past, the dominant voices in the public debate blended these
factors together. “The Soviets concluded that the global ‘correlation of forces’ was
shifting in their favor,” said Secretary of State George Shultz in an April 1985 speech.
“American weakness turned out to be the most destabilizing factor in the global scene.”
During the Vietnam War U.S. force had seemed the principal villain behind the suffering.
Columnist Anthony Lewis wrote at the time that nothing “could be more terrible than the
reality of what is happening in Cambodia now.” The massacres following the Communist
takeover belied that statement: History showed that things could be far worse than they
had been under a traditional dictator. As Shultz commented, “The communist subjection
of Indochina has fulfilled the worst predictions of the time.”
Shultz was also essentially correct in adding that while South Vietnam was “not a
Jeffersonian democracy with full civil liberties by American standards … there was a
vigorous, pluralist political process, and the government intruded little into the private
lives of the people.” Yet the pluralism was disruptive and against the Saigon
dictatorship’s will; unable either to stifle or to be transformed by dissent, the regime was
only weakened by it. The lack of intrusion was not benevolence but the government’s
inability to mobilize fully for war or even to exercise control over its own territory. The
dictatorship’s limited “virtues” helped cause its defeat.
By accepting the idea that change and revolution were inevitable, said the
aforementioned New Republic editorial, U.S. policy had shown antidemocratic
adversaries “that if they are fanatical enough and seem unyielding enough there will be
plenty of Americans who will argue that they are not to be resisted at all. Thus the victory
of the implacable becomes irresistible: zeal becomes its own reward, and perversely even
an index of justice.” Shultz rejected the criticism “that we, and our friends, are the
representatives of evil.” In a world where Pol Pot massacred fellow Cambodians, Qaddafi
ordered terrorism, and the Soviets seized Afghanistan, the focus of approbation must be
But there were two ways of acting on the conclusion that revolution against a
traditional dictator could produce something worse. The liberal interpretation favored
even greater urgency for pressing regimes toward reforms that could avoid an explosion;
the conservative alternative argued that liberal tinkering was destabilizing, making a
blowup more likely, and urged instead even more steadfast support of friendly dictators.
In the latter category was Kissinger’s warning in a September 1979 interview:
“Trying to bludgeon societies into behavior analogous to our own [will] either lead to a
deadlock and American irrelevance, or it will lead to the collapse of existing authority
without a substitute compatible with our values and, therefore, the emergence of a radical
outcome, as in Iran and Nicaragua…. If there is no moderate alternative and our choice is
between the status quo and the radicals, it is a serious question whether the radicals are
more in our long-term interest than the status quo.”
In reality, the Nicaragua and Iran crises presented the United States with
situations in which the status quo was no longer a viable option. U.S. policy was not one
of gratuitously bludgeoning Somoza into reforms but faced a situation in which
Washington’s backing for Somoza would have driven Nicaraguans to despair, radicalism,
and revolution, ensuring the worst-case outcome that the United States was trying to
avoid. By the time Khomeini’s radical leadership came to dominate the opposition,
Iranians had already concluded that the Shah’s regime could neither survive nor offer any
major reforms. The unpalatable choices emerging at the last minute in both countries–
dogged support of a failing traditional dictator or acceptance of an anti-American modern
dictatorship-were due to months of failure by U.S. policymakers to realize the depth of
the crisis and to take decisive action supporting a different result.
The view of Kissinger does not flinch from recognizing a leader’s duty to choose
among unattractive alternatives yet also presumes foreign revolutions take place only at
the behest of the United States. Kissinger sounded similar themes in a February 1979
interview on the Iranian Revolution, claiming that the Shah did not fight back more
forcefully “because he must have had doubts about our real intentions.” An ongoing
revolution cannot be moderated by concessions, Kissinger added, and these should come
only after order has been restored. This argument fails to understand that revolutions are
produced by a heterogeneous alignment of forces, united mainly by their opposition to
the existing order, which can be separated out, particularly in the earlier stages, by
reforms or moderate alternatives.
Kissinger’s analysis also neglects the foreign country’s internal politics and
problems that shape the crisis. In Iran these included the Shah’s personal weakness, the
opposition’s breadth, the army’s ineffectiveness, Khomeini’s charismatic appeal, and a
range of economic problems and sociological changes that stirred passionate grievances.
Ultimately Kissinger’s conception is analogous to explaining the American Revolution as
the result of French meddling and King George III’s lack of firmness.
The most comprehensive, sophisticated argument for the conservative analysis of
dictatorship was made by Jeane Kirkpatrick. In Dictatorships and Double Standards she
argues that traditional dictators were less burdensome for their subjects than are their
replacements. The Shah and Somoza, for example, through their long tenures, brought
relative domestic tranquillity, allowed their people to maintain their customary life-styles,
increased national wealth, and were friendly to the West. After decades of cooperation,
however, the United States dropped them when they were being attacked and helped into
power “new regimes in which ordinary people enjoy fewer freedoms and less personal
security than under the previous autocracy-regimes, moreover, hostile to American
interests and policies.” U.S. support “for ‘change’ in the abstract ends up by aligning us
tacitly with Soviet clients and irresponsible extremists…” Again, her analysis assumes
that keeping Somoza and the Shah in power was a viable option and one within U.S.
Kirkpatrick also misjudges who is a Soviet client; she was wrong about the
successful turnover of the Panama Canal and in labeling Panamanian dictator Omar
Torrijos a “Castroite.” Her liberal critics have sometimes been naive about the pro-Soviet
and dictatorial leanings of revolutionaries and liberation movements. But like Kissinger,
Kirkpatrick overstates the Soviet role in creating the discontent and revolts that emerge in
traditional dictatorships. “The deep historical forces at work in such diverse places as
Iran, the Horn of Africa, Southeast Asia, Central America, and the United Nations look a
lot like Russians or Cubans,” wrote Kirkpatrick. Yet revolutions do not gain impetus if
there is no strong basis for them; otherwise, the Soviets and Cubans could create
upheavals and turn regimes into puppets much more easily than has actually been the
case. Merely sending in guerrillas or arms, as Che Guevara discovered in Bolivia, does
not ensure success. Kirkpatrick is right, however, in noting that Soviet and Cuban support
may offer victory in appropriate circumstances to one of several contending opposition
factions and ideologies or may help a client regime stay in power.
One of Kirkpatrick’s most interesting insights is to explain why modern dictators
may be more appealing to Americans than their traditional counterparts. The latter’s open
distribution of power through kinship and cronyism “rather than on the basis of objective
‘rational’ standards violates our conception of justice and efficiency.” Americans dislike
regimes that prefer stability over the change that has been our historic choice. Extremes
of greed and conspicuous wealth next to grinding poverty are interpreted as deliberate
cruelty rather than inherited reality. Their replacements, in contrast, usually glorify
“modernity,… reason, science, education and progress…. They speak our language
[promising] a hopeful future,… egalitarianism rather than hierarchy and privilege, liberty
rather than order, activity rather than passivity.”
In Kirkpatrick’s writings, however, a revolution seems to be more the product of a
conspiracy rather than a reflection of wide discontent. “The Somoza regime had never
rested on popular will (but instead on manipulation, force, and habit),” she writes, and
fell not because of the masses’ sentiments but because of the Sandinistas’ arsenal. This is
technically true. As modern dictatorships show, regimes are not overthrown merely
because they are oppressive as long as the opposition lacks guns and organization.
Nonetheless, the Sandinistas were a tiny, isolated group until the regime’s behavior
sparked a mass uprising and general strike supported by the vast majority of Nicaraguans.
Non-Communist states like Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Mexico also acted
against Somoza. These forces all would have preferred a democratic alternative–
particularly if the United States had backed one–but were willing to support almost
anyone against Somoza, a judgment that can only be taken as a popular and regional
rejection of the regime.
A central point in Kirkpatrick’s argument is “that traditional authoritarian
governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies,… more susceptible of
liberalization, and … more compatible with U.S. interests.” This statement contains much
truth and some misleading conclusions about repression, liberalization, and U.S. interests.
Certainly, traditional dictatorships are generally less pervasive in their efforts to
shape society, but less activist government is not necessarily better or more popular.
Maintaining customary patterns-inequitable landlord-tenant relationships, for examplemay
be more oppressive than altering them. Further, the new regime may change the
focus of repression from being a weapon of social control against workers and peasants
into being a tool of vengeance and political control against the wealthy, the old middle
class, or opposition activists. Those who are no longer being punished or who benefit
from economic change-land reform, nationalizations, enlargement of the elite-are
unlikely to see the new system as more repressive and are much more likely to find it
psychologically appealing. The fact that traditional dictators did not alter the distribution
of goods, status, and power was not so much an act of kindness as a failure to meet the
dramatic changes and demands for development already shaking their countries.
As for liberalization, Kirkpatrick accurately notes, “Although there is no instance
of a revolutionary ‘socialist’ or Communist society being democratized, right-wing
autocracies do sometimes evolve into democracies.” Third World traditional dictatorships
are more likely to become democratic than are modern dictatorships, but by the same
token, they are also just as likely, particularly outside of Latin America, to become new
modern dictatorships. Kirkpatrick’s academic research had been on Latin America, where
traditional dictatorships have generally alternated with civilian rule. In other regions,
however, there are few traditional dictators left. The point is that, as political systems,
traditional dictatorships in our time are more systemically unstable than modern
dictatorships. Consequently, U.S. interests are not best served by a laissez-faire policy
toward traditional dictatorships; it is all the more important to act decisively at critical
turning points in order to avoid their replacement by more entrenched dictatorial regimes.
Actually the Carter administration was never eager to “overthrow” the Shah and
Somoza, and human rights considerations had little practical effect on U.S. policy toward
them. When revolts did begin, the first phase of U.S reaction was a denial that any
problem existed. Having justified bilateral rerations so long on the basis of realpolitik and
having seen previous challenges fail, Washington doubted the dictators were in real
Only after months when the regime’s incapacity had been demonstrated did the
Carter administration begin to act. Even then it was paralyzed by heated debates over
whether the United States should press the ruler for concessions and by fear of a
conservative backlash at home. Washington did not push the Shah or Somoza far or fast
enough to yield to the moderate democratic opposition. Demands grew greater as the
regimes showed both weakness and inflexibility. When moderates saw no alternative,
they began to throw their support behind the radicals-Islamic fundamentalists and
Sandinistas respectively. The chain of events was quite different from what Kirkpatrick
Again, it is true that U.S. relations with prerevolutionary Cuba, South Vietnam,
Iran, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Nicaragua were better than with the successor regimes. Some
anti-Americanism can be traced to specific U.S. policies; a great deal of the antagonism
was adopted for ideological and domestic reasons. Those dependent on Moscow or who
seek to lead regional or global revolutions are not going to be swayed by U.S. arguments
or demonstrations of goodwill. Kirkpatrick makes a persuasive case against
romanticizing modern dictators or naively expecting that nothing can be worse than
existing traditional ones.
Yet her analysis has also been criticized as an apology for traditional
dictatorships, a rationale for a U.S. policy of shoring up an existing dictatorship rather
than pressing the dictator for change or a peaceful yielding to democratic rule. In two
specific cases, El Salvador and the Philippines, this is precisely how Kirkpatrick herself
“To many Salvadorans,” Kirkpatrick wrote, past violent repression “seems less
important than the fact of restored order and the … years of civil peace that ensued.”
Obviously this is more likely to be true of the Salvadoran landowning and army elite than
of the lower-class majority and much of the urban middle class as well. Moreover, if this
view of public opinion is accurate, it applies even more to modern dictatorships, which
are generally better able to maintain order through propaganda and repression, than to
traditional ones. But an obsession with order can also block progress, evolving into a
system unacceptable to increasingly larger sectors of the populace. The real question is
how much of the public is willing to accept and pay the personal and social costs for the
kind of order provided.
If a liberal error was to see any change as improvement, the conservative mistake
was to think that mere willpower could prevent change. Thus, in El Salvador during the
1980s a stubborn determination to maintain the existing order would have been suicidal.
The Reagan administration rightly strove to avoid the emergence of an anti-American,
pro-Soviet modern dictatorship in El Salvador by providing aid and military training to
the government. But it also believed the surest way to “save” El Salvador was by backing
the military-landlord elite. The administration saw issues of democracy, human rights,
and land reform as a disruptive distraction from successful waging of the war.
Fortunately pressure from Congress and public opinion forced the administration to
condition aid on the holding of elections and other reforms which, while still inadequate,
undercut the appeal of Marxist revolution. If not for President Duarte and a heroic group
of Christian Democrats, the army’s brutality and the oligarchy’s reactionary policies
would have alienated tens of thousands of professionals, workers, and peasants into
joining forces with the guerrillas.
Similarly, Kirkpatrick failed to understand the Philippines crisis of 1985-86.
Aside from the Communists waging guerrilla warfare, there was a much larger moderate
opposition to President Ferdinand Marcos. Kirkpatrick saw only two alternatives:
preserving Marcos or allowing the Communists to take over. In fact, trying to do the
former was the best way to guarantee the latter result. Marcos’s failures were not
extraordinary, she wrote in a December 1985 column, “Of 159 member states of the
United Nations, at least 100 are probably more poorly than the Philippines.” Once again,
the United States was showing “obsessive intolerance [toward] a government in a nation
of great strategic importance…. Remember Batista, Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam, Lon Nol
of Cambodia, the Shah of Iran, Anastasio Somoza?” Each’s shortcomings were
manipulated to fool Americans and replace them with “repressive, aggressive
dictatorships.” She cautioned against pressuring Marcos, concluding that political change
in the Philippines was ultimately not the business of the United States. It was a formula
characterized by Washington Post reporter Sidney Blumenthal as “Stand by your
Yet if the United States had not supported the opposition after Marcos stole the
February 1986 election or had not pressured Marcos to institute reforms and ultimately to
step aside, the situation would have become far worse. The crisis was real: The economy
was in ruins, government forces were murdering peasants, the army could not contain the
guerrillas, and the Catholic Church had joined the opposition. Increasingly desperate
opponents were reaching the point where they would prefer and work for a Communist
victory rather than continue to live under Marcos’s rule. What to Kirkpatrick was
“meddling” and “interference in Philippine politics” was a desperate effort to avoid fullscale
civil war. If American policymakers had followed her advice to “cease” their
“interference,” the Philippines would ultimately have gone the way of Vietnam or
Fortunately, knowledgeable officials in the State and Defense departments, aided
by Congress, forced the White House to face reality and support Corazon Aquino, the
true winner of the presidential election. The key factor, however, was the determination,
democratic traditions, and courage of the Filipinos themselves.
While the Philippines crisis provided the administration with some education
about traditional dictators, there were fewer pro-U.S., rightist or traditional dictatorships
left, with South Korea and Chile being the most controversial. The White House had
already developed a new policy toward some modern dictators, inspired by the
emergence of guerrilla warfare against modern dictatorships in Angola, Afghanistan,
Cambodia, and Nicaragua. Since domestic reluctance and changes in the international
environment make it harder for the United States to arrange covert operations or coups to
overthrow hostile Third World governments, support for opposition guerrillas seems a
promising way to reach the same goal.
Conditions in these four countries varied considerably. The Afghan guerrillas,
fighting a Soviet invasion and a puppet government, were themselves Islamic
fundamentalists. The administration never used its considerable leverage over the
Nicaraguan Contras to make them more observant of human rights or to strengthen the
moderates among them. In Angola Jonas Savimbi may have had as good a claim to
governing as did the ruling party, but he primarily represented a tribal constituency. And
most of the Cambodian guerrillas were led by the very Communists who had murdered so
many of their own people when in power. Thus, while all these movements were anti-
Soviet and pro-United States, none of them was particularly democratic-minded. Some of
them were unable to build broad bases of support, unity, and nationalist legitimacy. Their
U.S. supporters found it difficult to see how these were prerequisites for success.
If conservatives tended to be complacent about traditional dictatorships as long as
they were anti-Communist, many liberals have been too lenient on Third World modern
dictatorships and the claims of movements fighting traditional dictators. The left still
tends to think that nothing could be worse than the old order, believing that only an
opportunist or worse could support the wretchedness of today compared with the
beautiful vision of tomorrow purveyed by the modern dictators. To criticize such heroes
of equity and social justice is equivalent to intellectual treason.
Past Western and U.S. bullying, racism, and colonialism erode the confidence of
the West or at least portions of its intelligentsia. It is important to remember, however,
that there are different stages of wisdom about international affairs. One is to understand
that other people also believe their country and leaders correct, that we are not always
right, and that another country’s behavior cannot be comprehended without its society,
history, and national viewpoint. Nonetheless, a still higher level of comprehension is to
learn that cultural relativism does not necessarily mean that the other side is right, that
belief in human equality does not mean being fooled into thinking humanity is
homogeneous, and that to understand another nation is not necessarily to agree with it.
The Iranian regime and many of its citizens may believe that the United States is the
Great Satan, Libya may think that it has a perfect right to support international terrorism,
other nations may conclude that economic development requires the persecution or
torture of “class enemies” or dissidents; but sincerity is not what is at issue here. Political
analysis also requires a differentiation between subjective beliefs and objective reality.
Much of the Western left and some liberals have become apologists for modern
dictators, accepting their claims and statistics at face value, something they would never
do with their own governments. In the case of Nicaragua, for example, they have denied
the Sandinistas’ Marxist-Leninist objectives and harshly criticized those documenting
inequities as giving aid and comfort to the right. Naïve and sympathetic American
visitors have traveled to various modern dictatorships and returned with reflexive,
This deeply emotional defensiveness is based on hatred of the oppressive
traditional regimes and equation of the new ones with progress. Once “liberated,” the
country becomes a cause to be protected rather than a society to be evaluated. Being
willfully naive about how power is actually exercised, the left sees the unexamined new
order as a festival of rule by the “people.” This kind of debate has been going on since
the French Revolution. One could admire the motto of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity
or point to the liberal use of the guillotine. Those doing the latter could be accused of
indifference to the old monarchy’s daily oppression. Today those who point out the
shortcomings of African governments can be unfairly accused of a preference for
colonialism, or, in Nicaragua’s case, for Somoza.
Confusion also arises from the idea that poverty, malnutrition, and disease are the
direct causes of revolution. If this is true, then the rebellion can be seen as an inherently
virtuous protest against dreadful conditions. But if it is understood that the strain of
change and development is the real cause of political upheaval, then the new regimes
must be judged by what they produce rather than by what they negate.
The modern dictators and their apologists convinced the Western left and some
liberals that the Third World’s ruling classes are not responsible for their own misrule,
that it is bad form to expose their corruption or to reveal their repression. Such criticisms
were to be dealt with as the intellectual equivalent of pornography. Its authors could be
told, as translator Robert Hass lectured one critic, “No American writer is in a position to
lecture a Nicaraguan writer on the forgiveness of sins.” After all, he who carps is
“exposed to no danger, require[d] to perform no action,” nor does he mitigate anyone’s
suffering. “It would take a good deal of self-intoxication to lecture [Minister of Culture]
Father [Ernestol Cardinal, or anyone else, from that particular platform.” But all this
omits the fact that regardless of the past, the Cardinals are now in power and doing the
persecuting of democratic-minded opponents. The dictators themselves are also “exposed
to no danger.”
A combination of guilt, dissatisfaction with their own society, yearning for
utopian solutions, and romanticism can become a brew that turns the liberals’ original
humanitarian goals and beliefs on their head. Sartre rationalized Third World violence in
his preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth: “By this mad fury, by this bitterness
and spleen, by their ever-present desire to kill us, by the permanent tensing of powerful
muscles which are afraid to relax, they have become men…. Hatred, blind hatred … is
their only wealth.” Such a simultaneously masochistic and patronizing view-they once
lived just to serve us., now they exist only to punish us–quickly turns into an apologia for
massacres, torture, terrorism, anti-Semitism, and endless lies.
The problems posed for U.S. policy by Libya and Sandinista Nicaragua provide
some guidance on how to formulate a strategy toward such hostile regimes. In both cases
most Americans would like to see the current rulers removed or forced to change their
A century ago Qaddafi’s involvement in subverting his neighbors and terrorism
would have brought on a Western invasion; a few decades ago it would have brought a
U.S.-sponsored coup. Today, however, American conscience and debate, regional
nationalism, Soviet intervention and the structure of modern dictatorship effectively rule
out these options.
To stage a coup, a dissident Libyan colonel would have to organize colleagues
and be sure that subordinate officers and troops would follow his order to rebel. This is a
far more difficult task than it was for Qaddafi himself under the monarchy. Loyalty is
highly institutionalized; security measures are stronger. Qaddafi’s five separate
intelligence agencies, some led by relatives, watch one another and the armed forces.
Soviet bloc advisers who help protect Qaddafi will neither sympathize with nor be bought
off by opponents. Better means of expanding the ruling elite, ideology, surveillance, and
repression have reduced the number of coups in the Arab world. The last successful
military takeovers in major Arab states were in Syria (1970) and Qaddafi’s own coup in
Qaddafi not only used repression but also provided a variety of material benefits,
patriotism, and his own charisma. He came to power at the moment when oil money
began to pour into Libya. Despite his massive arms spending, there were billions of
dollars left for raising living standards. Qaddafi also transformed Libya from a backwater
into an important country, suffused with pride and extreme nationalism. In addition, he
skillfully manipulated symbols and the media to portray himself as the nation’s
embodiment, a man who serves the people’s interests and someone with whom all good
Libyans should identify.
But Qaddafi’s modern dictatorship also has some significant weaknesses. His
wasteful ways, shoddy planning, and economic errors, combined with an oil glut that
drastically reduced revenues, forced major cutbacks in politically beneficial spending.
Qaddafi’s anarchic tendencies prevented him from building as strong a network of loyal
groups as could be found in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, or Iran. More than the others, Qaddafi led
a “one-bullet” regime vulnerable to his assassination. On the regional level his personal
instability and aggressiveness made him unpopular among fellow Arabs. Internationally
Qaddafi could not rely on Soviet help; he had to fear, while simultaneously ridiculing,
retribution from the United States.
The fact that Qaddafi is not crazy and wishes to remain in power gives the United
States a great amount of potential leverage against him. The Libyan dictator used
terrorism, demagoguery, bribery, and other such techniques not as ends in themselves but
as instruments in furthering his ambition. This very goal-oriented quality makes him
more vulnerable to deterrence and discouragement. Consequently, the application of a
judicious amount of force, as in the U.S. air attacks of 1986, can have a positive effect.
The pressure should be enough to weaken Qaddafi and demonstrate to him the costs of
his anti-American and subversive activities but not so much as to make him feel so
cornered as to escalate his efforts at regional destabilization and international terrorism.
U.S. actions will not reduce terrorism or Qaddafi’s trouble-making to zero but it can
restrain Libya, cutting down the number of incidents, saving lives, making it harder for
terrorists to act or escape, and discouraging others from imitating Qaddafi.
In themselves, highly publicized confrontations with the United States allowed
Qaddafi to posture both as a Libyan and an Arab nationalist. But such activities do him
little good in the region. Anyone who has long observed the Middle East has seen that
Arab solidarity can bea greatly overestimated factor. All the Arab governments had to
make ritual, rhetorical criticism of anti-Qaddafi actions but none of them did anything
help Libya and many are not displeased by a weakening of The Libyan leader himself
well understood his own and the dangerous situation he was facing.
Since Qaddafi wanted to stay in power, he had to take account both the lack of
Arab support and the military and economic pressures that threaten to force him into
choosing between changing his behavior or seeing his rule undermined. Qaddafi will
choose to stay in power but this very decision will also force him to be more restrained in
his actions. Even if many Libyans rally to him out of patriotism, it does not change this
Economic pressure from the United States and Western Europe, including
embargoes and bars on citizens working in Libya, would cause further declines in living
standards and challenge Qaddafi’s popularity. Since Qaddafi overestimates U.S. power,
quiet and open operations against him-particularly those with minimal publicity-will feed
a sense of panic within the regime. These measures can have an effect, however, only if
coupled with diplomacy that allows Qaddafi a face-saving retreat. While Qaddafi’s
ambitions and ideology pose the real problem-he is an adventurist even by modern
dictators’ standards-U.S. policy could limit and help control his destabilizing activities.
Similar points can be made about Nicaragua. As in the case of Libya, the Sandinistas
gained support by their leading role in destroying the old order, providing benefits for
many, seizing a monopoly on patriotism, and indoctrinating the young. They were better
organized than Libya and not so dependent on one leader. But on the negative side their
economy was more precarious, the regional balance more unfavorable, U.S. power closer
at hand, and the opposition more deeply rooted.
Nicaragua’s rulers moved hesitantly down the road to modern dictatorship not out
of any compunction but because of three political factors: They were afraid that the
United States would increase aid to the Contras or even stage an invasion; the Soviets and
Cubans, overextended and wanting to avoid confrontation with Washington, gave
Managua only limited help; and domestic opponents–including the church, independent
labor unions, and the remaining private sector–were still strong enough to checkmate a
regime that could harass but not destroy them. The best strategy for the United States was
to make use of these constraints.
Washington’s main objectives vis-à-vis Nicaragua were to prevent the
establishment of Soviet bloc bases, limit the further entrenchment of Soviet-Cuban
influence, and stop the Sandinistas from continuing to subvert their neighbors. Support
for democratic opposition forces in Nicaragua was valuable not only on its own terms but
also because some degree of pluralism was the best guarantee of moderating the regime’s
foreign policy and stopping the advance to full modern dictatorship.
The Contras, in and of themselves, could not obtain these results. Militarily they
were unable to defeat the Sandinistas; politically they were ineptly organized. Their
obvious dependence on U.S. support eroded their patriotic appeal, ceding the powerful
weapon of nationalism to the regime. The ex-Somoza officers who led Contra military
forces were not impressive fighters. Other than bullying the peasantry, their sole
experience with war was being defeated by the Sandinistas. The Contras’ tactic of
terrorizing the populace was not just an ethical problem but also showed they had no idea
of how to build a base of support or create liberated zones. The Reagan administration
made no serious effort to democratize the Contras themselves or purge Somocista
elements. Yet without such steps Congress would give only limited support to a
movement that seemed likely to return Nicaragua to traditional dictatorship or even to
drag the United States into war.
Again, U. S. strategy needed to combine military-economic pressure with diplomatic
activism. Even those who opposed funding the Contras or criticized the economic boycott
against Nicaragua could still agree with the use of such already existing leverage as a
point of departure. The Sandinistas, in short, must be pushed to the point where they have
to make a choice between changing their policies or risking the loss of power altogether.
But, to be effective, this U.S. policy must present the dictatorship with a way out.
Otherwise, the modern dictatorship can toughen its policy and fight to the end. With no
incentive to limit domestic repression, links to the Soviet bloc, and foreign subversion,
the regime will pose a much greater danger to the United States than it did before the
onset of the confrontation. Given the continued constraints on the United States,
particularly against a direct invasion, and the tools that a modern dictatorship can bring to
bear, the Sandinistas might well win out in the end. They would then be far more
entrenched as well as virtually impervious to U.S. influence. After all, this is precisely
what happened with Castro’s regime in Cuba.
The best negotiating option is represented by the Contadora accords, promoted by
most Latin American governments, which sought to ensure the removal of foreign bases,
military buildups, and cross-border subversion from Central America. These were all
high-priority aims of the United States but no diplomatic solution was possible without
active U.S. involvement. Instead of allowing itself to be seen as the main factor blocking
negotiations, the United States should have been demanding that Nicaragua negotiate,
both bilaterally and multilaterally. In such circumstances, U.S. leverage and the support
of the region’s nations could have been effectively brought into play to reach a solution
satisfying American interests.
As in the case of Libya, the Reagan administration failed to appreciate the powers
and advantages that a modern dictatorship could bring into play. It underestimated the
case of overthrowing such a regime, thereby weakening its ability to influence such a
government even against the dictatorship’s will.
By a combination of carrots and sticks, conditioned on Nicaragua’s behavior,
tough negotiations, and support for the internal democratic opposition, the United States
could gain the upper hand. Whether or not Nicaragua became democratic, much of its
threat to the area would have been defused and domestic repression reduced. If Nicaragua
violated the treaties, the United States would have the power-and much wider domestic
and regional support-for decisive action to force them back into line. Ultimately, a
successful policy must be both tough and flexible. Many liberals have underestimated the
Sandinistas dictatorial ambitions and Marxist-Leninist politics. Yet conservatives have
not accurately assessed how best to challenge these factors and have not appreciated the
resources such a regime can use to stay in power even against–one might say,
particularly against–a foreign-backed guerrilla war. The fact that the Sandinistas can
credibly portray the Contras as flunkies of the United States goes a long way toward
rationalizing Managua’s own policy toward Havana and Moscow. A situation in which
the Sandinistas can credibly claim that the Contras want to return to an oppressive
traditional dictatorship helps immeasurably to secure passivity or even support for their
own repressive measures.
In dealing with modern dictatorships, there are no total solutions. Since the United
States was unwilling or unable to overthrow the Tripoli and Managua regimes, the goal
of U.S. policy should be to achieve some coexistence under the best possible terms for
the United States by making the maximum use of their insecurities to place the greatest
limits on their foreign and domestic abuses. In general, modern dictators require their
citizens to accept limits on rights and living standards which are unpalatable even when
nationalism, necessity, and ideology are offered as rationales. The governments
themselves can neither trust the USSR for aid and protection nor solve their own
development problems. These shortcomings offer opportunities for U.S. strategic and
military leverage, human rights and material advantages, and our technological and
economic edge over the USSR.
Economically backward and strategically overextended, Moscow has limited
resources and even more limited generosity. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the
USSR supplies less than 1 percent of economic assistance. But it also provides an
estimated 48 percent of military aid and, in some cases, Cuban soldiers. These are
impressive assets in some situations. Still, most modern dictators are eager to improve
relations with the West to obtain aid, goods, and technology that the Soviet bloc cannot
or will not provide. The U.S. role in mediating regional conflicts provides an enormous
advantage. Time after time the Soviets have been disappointed in their attempts to court
or control rulers.
While the United States has suffered from the conversion of traditional
dictatorships to modern dictatorships, the Soviets and their allies have learned the
fickleness of the latter. Like the United States, they have discovered that the structures
and rhetoric of modern dictators do not mean that they are Communists. As a Polish
writer, Ignacy Sachs, put it in 1966, “In practice, we sometimes invert the correct
assertion that foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy, and whenever, on the
international scene, a country practices neutralism or seeks cooperation from us, we
endeavor to find leftist trends in its domestic policy.” Moscow’s concern, of course, is to
create situations where ideological affinity, factional manipulation, security and
economic dependence, or even outright occupation would cement the regime’s allegiance
as puppet or client.
Again like the United States, the Soviets find it difficult to decide in many cases
whether to support opposition movements or the government in power. Sometimes they
have bet on the revolution and ruined their relations with the rulers. In other cases
Moscow has outlived its usefulness when its influence came to threaten the dictator’s
most precious possession: his own power. Motivated by ego, nationalism, or greed, the
dictator has reined in or expelled the Soviets. Thus, Moscow has been forced out of one
country after another: Egypt, Sudan, and Iraq in the Middle East; Somalia, Guinea, and
Ghana in Africa. After three decades of independence for Africa, after three decades of
Soviet priority on the Arab world, and three decades after the Cuban revolution in Latin
America, Moscow’s gains are not really impressive.
From the standpoint of the East-West conflict and of U.S. interests generally, four
types of Third World dictatorships can be distinguished. First, there are regimes aligned
with the USSR, supporting Soviet strategic aims, allowing Soviet use of their soil for
bases and other facilities, and engaged. . i close security and intelligence cooperation. In
short, the identity and survival of the regime seem tightly linked with the Soviet bloc.
These criteria apply to such close allies as Cuba, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. To a lesser
but still impressive degree these conditions can be found in clients like Syria and
Nicaragua, Angola and Ethiopia, though none of them is a Soviet satellite.
Second, there are countries engaged for their own reasons in the systematic
subversion of neighbors, antagonism to U.S. interests, attacks on U.S. friends, and
support for international terrorism. These states include Libya and Iran, and both
Nicaragua and Syria could also be placed here.
Most modern dictators, however, want good relations with the United States and
regional stability. They (like Egypt and Tunisia) are interested in U.S. support or (like
most African regimes) view U.S.-Soviet competition as a chance to play off both sides
for their own benefit and maximum independence.
Finally, there are the remaining traditional dictators friendly with the United
States. Some of them, like the Arab monarchies, still enjoy a large amount of traditional
legitimacy, but this can be expected to decay over the coming decades. In Asia and Latin
America a return to civilian democratic rule may prove a safety valve. But if these
dictators mistreat their people, fail to provide benefits, and face confident, organized
oppositions, serious instability can result. Traditional dictators, then, threaten U.S.
interests not by themselves becoming pro-Soviet or anti-American but by providing
fertile ground for such regimes to arise.
Consequently, the U.S. rationale for such “abnormal” diplomatic steps as support
for human rights, democratization, and opposition movements is justified by different
considerations for friendly and hostile states. In the former case such actions can stem the
deterioration that might bring antagonistic dictatorial forces to power. Where regimes are
already hostile, these measures can be constraints, challenging the narrow monopoly on
power that allows a regime to benefit from concentrating power, stifling dissent, using
Soviet repressive aid, and destabilizing its region.
All these circumstances and problems are quite different from past expectations.
America’s founders of the late eighteenth century and most nineteenth-century Western
political thinkers believed the world would follow a straight line of from monarchies to
representative democracies. In our century, however, a new kind of dictatorship arose
from collapse of countries in the catastrophes of war and revolution, the strains of
socioeconomic change, and the manipulation of new organizational, ideological, and
technological tools. The praxis of unscrupulous or well-intentioned ideologues as well as
the acts of desperate people has severely shaken the dream of progress.
Nevertheless, all the facts are still not registered. The preliminary results have
thrown into doubt the deterministic optimism of the past. It has yet to be seen whether
more industry, urbanization, and the fruits of modern communication, education, and
ideas will, in turn, produce a popular demand for more rights. Nor can it yet be
determined whether the need to create an internal market will create a large, democratic-
minded middle class. Even the practical failures of modern dictatorships do not mean that
they will crumble. After all, the most economically and technologically advanced such
regime is the Soviet Union, a state that hardly seems to be following a trend toward
democracy. Furthermore, the new middle class in Africa and the Middle East-dependent
on government employment or intellectually committed to radical nationalist ideologyhas
been, despite many exceptions, more of a pillar of than a challenger to the system of
Modern dictatorship, then, seems a type of government that has great staying
power in the future Third World. Traditional dictatorship seems the structure most
threatened by change and development. While the influx of much oil wealth has
postponed the showdown, Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies may be expected to
face serious problems in the coming decade. Unless those in power in “tin America’s
current springtime of democracy are capable of making major innovations, the cycle of
military rule can be expected to return. In Asia, the Third World region most successful
at making economic progress, the traditional dictatorships and modernizing juntas in
South Korea and elsewhere may be expected to reach a crossroads, with one path leading
to modern dictatorship and the other to a more democratic society.
An additional question is the underlying insecurity of the industrialized
democratic states-the United States, Canada, West Europe, Israel, and Japan among
them-that they are less qualified for survival than the modern dictatorships. The idea,
which the dictatorships themselves spread, is that the disunity, lack of discipline,
openness, and lack of brutality of democratic states make them weaker and less able to
History has shown, however, that these fears are not well grounded. Modern
dictators put society under a discipline and coordination of energy that protect their own
rule and may mobilize resources and manpower more effectively than might otherwise
happen. But these very same techniques also sabotage the system by removing the
pluralism and personal initiative that are the best safeguard against waste and
inefficiency. Objectively, free people are more productive, at least after a certain level of
development. This factor can be very important in competition among countries, but it
does not necessarily apply to the political struggle within specific countries, where the
forces of dictatorship may enjoy the significant advantages enumerated above.
Individual governments and types of rule should be judged on how much they
actually do for their citizens, including their ability to provide justice, progress, material
well-being, and freedom. U.S. relations with other governments will be based in the first
place, but not exclusively, on their foreign policies. Yes history has shown that a nation’s
internal conduct often plays a central role in determining its external behavior. One
hopes for a day when there are no more dictatorships of any kind on the earth, but
dictatorships–like democracies–have survived because of an ability to evolve and to take
on new forms.