RETRO APPEAL

Samuel Doe was the kind of person who would never have risen to or maintained political power without the Cold War. Doe, who ruled Liberia from 1980 to 1990, was the typical Third World dictator of that era: corrupt, brutally repressive, and propped up by one of the two superpowers. In Doe's case that was the United States. He was one of many American "allies" throughout the Cold War who understood exactly how to keep the flow of money, weapons, and food aid coming from Washington by spouting virulent anti-communist rhetoric and cracking down on leftist parties in domestic politics. We had a standing policy for the better part of 50 years to prop up any crackpot tyrant willing to line up on our side, turning a blind eye to the catalog of human rights abuses perpetrated under his rule.

As the Cold War wound to a close in the late 1980s, Doe and many others like him around the world found that they were no longer useful to the U.S. – or alternatively that their Soviet patrons were about to give up the ghost. Once Doe's role in the Battle against Communism became a moot point there was little reason for Congress and the Pentagon to support him. We abandoned him to his fate and in fact encouraged people who were trying to overthrow him, perhaps attempting to score a few brownie points by condemning his dismal human rights record we had long been happy to ignore. Liberian rebels, to shorten a long story, deposed Doe in a 1989-1990 coup; he was last seen having his ears sliced off (Reservoir Dogs style) before being executed by drunken rebels in a snuff film that still sells briskly on the black market in Africa (very NSFW).

Of course we were soon to discover that Charles Taylor, the leader of the rebels who overthrew Doe, would prove to be even more of a brutal killer than his predecessor. Turns out those rebels we had cheered were not terribly interested in democracy or anything else that Americans imagine to be the goal of revolutions worldwide. It was merely the exchange of one brutal thug for another, the only difference being the degree to which Doe was superior in sucking up to Washington's interests.

Fast forward to 2011 and hopefully it is clear why this tale comes to mind as we watch the events in Egypt and the rest of North Africa unfold. In the post-Cold War world America's counterproductive policy of propping up dictators has continued with only cosmetic changes, notably replacing "Communism" with "terrorists / Islamic fundamentalists." While Americans and especially American right wingers instinctively fawn all over protest movements by imagining them as a validation of the George W. Bush worldview ("Freedom is on the march!"), a little caution might be prudent here.

If Mubarak is toppled – and it appears likely if not necessarily imminent – what replaces him? Does a popular democratic movement sweep Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei into power or does the anti-American, pro-extremist Muslim Brotherhood, one of the most popular opposition parties, come out on top? While there is no justification for keeping Mubarak's corrupt ass in power any longer, it's fair to recognize the possibility that the replacement might be worse.

If Mubarak is toppled, who fills Egypt's role as an intermediary between Israel and the larger Arab world? Does Egypt become a state friendly to terrorism, a la Syria? Do human rights abuses get even worse?

Let me stress again that in no way do I think Mubarak should stay (or be kept) in power; he is little different than any of the cheap thugs who served as Allies of Convenience during the Cold War. His situation does raise two issues, though. First, by repeating the failed foreign policy of the Cold War era and calling any jackass who will promise to help us kill terrorists a Valued Ally – and turning a blind eye to human and political rights abuses – we are bound to repeat its consequences. There will be more anti-American sentiment and more instability in already unstable areas of the world. Second, if America does the right thing and declines to interfere in these nations' process of determining their own political future there is an excellent chance that the resulting governments will be less friendly to the U.S. and possibly even hostile. Their memories of what we did to support the dictator who repressed them for 30 years will be long and unpleasant.

In other words, let's hold off on the knee-jerk cheering until we understand the long term consequences of current events. I hope the people of Egypt rid themselves of their self appointed President for Life. The U.S. has to brace for the possibility that the consequences of that eventuality might not be pleasant for either the Egyptians themselves or the world at large. I guess repeating the same foreign policy mistakes of the 1950s is the price we pay for convincing ourselves as a nation that the same policies somehow ended (and "won") the Cold War.

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30 Responses to “RETRO APPEAL”

  1. Ben Says:

    Nice post. Only thing to add is the role Egypt plays in energy distribution. The Suez Canal doesn't directly serve US energy interests, but it's a choke point for much of Europe's energy. Should an anti-Western regime gain control of the canal it could wreak havoc with the world's energy supply.

    This is an additional reason for US support of Mubarak, and an additional complication for cheering on the Egyptian protests. Would you be willing to pay $8/gallon for gas, and have food and heating prices spike 50%, in order for Egyptians to have a more popular and legitimate regime? The world is a complicated place.

  2. Hazy Davy Says:

    Impressed by how clearly you explain complicated things.

  3. Ike Says:

    I can't watch footage of the riots and demonstrations in Egypt this week without thinking of Diem of South Vietnam and the Shah of Iran. Will we support a friendly puppet? Or will we just sit back and watch?

    I wonder what the Israeli military commanders are doing right now. I doubt they are golfing.

  4. Xynzee Says:

    A guy I know's parents were involved in the uprisings against the Shah. What they got wasn't what they wanted.

  5. Mark Says:

    http://www.parade.com/dictators/2009/more-of-the-worlds-worst-dictators.html?index=1

    Parade Magazine does an annual roundup of the World's Worst Dictators – The U.S. trades and supports almost every single one of them (mainly through the purchase and investment in oil). I would gladly pay $8/gallon for us not to be involved with any of these characters.

  6. RT Butte Says:

    What if we're doing all of this on purpose? That is, propping up tinpot dictators all over the Middle East in order to ensure the continued necessity of our presence in that area. We go in, dick around a bit and make a mess, then stand back and say "Look at this mess we've made, guess we'll have to clean it up."

    Now, if you forget the words "we've made" (and we are excellent at forgetting those words) you get to act very put upon and pretend that you are a brave and tireless worker, righting the wrongs and fixing the injustices of the world. And if you look around, we are doing just exactly that.

  7. Arslan Amirkhanov Says:

    I notice the article on Cuba lists this: "According to Human Rights Watch, The Cuban government celebrated International Human Rights Day by beating, threatening and arresting dissidents."

    Ah Human Rights Watch, the ace in the hole for any American or Western president/prime minister who wants to cloak military intervention in humanitarian garb.

  8. Arslan Amirkhanov Says:

    And then there's this gem: "According to the U.S. State Department, “trial outcomes usually were predetermined,” and some trials are held behind closed doors."

    Yes, the US State Department, the one which insisted that Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda and WMDs. Notice there's no body count for "Europe's only dictator." Maybe that's because there aren't any. Europe doesn't like Lukashenko because he puts the people first, and has reversed the disasters of privatization. And were any trials not held behind closed doors, they would be dismissed as "show trials" anyway.

    Note that Lukashenko has been rightfully elected several more times than George W. Bush. What sanctions were levied against the USA after Bush stole the election in 2000?

  9. Cokehead Says:

    I'm not so sure about this Muslim Brotherhood = extremist thing. They're not on the State Department's terrorist watch list (Rag on as you will, but that list is extremely easy to get on), and they have previously denounced terrorist attacks – and they have shitfits about being compared to the Iranian Muslim Brotherhood.

    Overall, We don't have many choices. We could keep Mubarak in power (not happening, even if we wanted it to), we could support whatever random candidate Egyptians end up voting for, or we could play with the election and win another US-friendly dictator.

    Unless there's something I'm missing, all-out democracy seems to be the most PR-friendly choice. And the whole playing with other countries' elections thing hasn't worked out for us thus far. The entire Middle Eastern region is FUBAR, IMO, in regards to friendliness to the United States, so even if we wanted to repeat bad policy, I'm not even sure we could manage it anymore.

  10. grumpygradstudent Says:

    Dahl wrote a piece once arguing that the real guts of democracy isn't in the elections, nor even in the institutions, but rather in the collective belief in those things.

    It took 200 years and a civil war for our country to build up the institutions and the faith therin that allow for some semblance of popular sovereignty, rule of law, and minority rights. We will see in Iraq, and perhaps also now in Egypt, the extent to which democracy can be reduced to elections alone. My guess? Not very well.

    That said, democracy is a type of procedure. It was never supposed to guarantee any particular outcomes. It's amusing to me that anybody should be surprised that, often, majorities in other countries want policies that the U.S. doesn't like. Shocker! However, as someone who still manages to have some faith in democracy as a procedural norm, I would tend to support any changes that institute democracy, even if the content of those democratic decisions is shitty.

  11. displaced Capitalist Says:

    A guy I know's parents were involved in the uprisings against the Shah. What they got wasn't what they wanted.

    I don't think the Bolsheviks wanted Stalin either.

  12. bb in GA Says:

    I fear we are in a no-win situation.

    You want every world leader we deal with to have the moral rectitude of George Washington's Sunday School teacher.

    Assuming they're not, would you have us exert ourselves diplomatically/militarily until we get what we want?

    Then you would accuse us of having a passel of client state, toady sock puppets as governors of the Third World (but wait, we get accused of that anyway…)

    Blame Amerikkka first! We suck.

    //bb

  13. Major Kong Says:

    As long as you grant us basing rights and let us run an oil pipeline through your territory you can (literally) boil your political opponents alive for all we care.

    Stop going with the program and suddenly we're shocked! shocked I tell you! to discover that you're the worst dictator who ever dictated.

  14. Kulkuri Says:

    Funny, I've heard this same argument on the job. The leadman or foreman saying, "Sure he's a useless fuck, but the replacement they send me may be worse, so I won't get rid of him."

    By that same reasoning most politicians get re-elected. All of them are useless crooks, except s/he is my crook and better the devil you know than the devil you don't know.

  15. ladiesbane Says:

    @bb: I don't assume Sunday School teachers are paragons of moral rectitude, but yeah, I would like the world leaders we deal with not to jail political dissidents, deny equal rights to all their citizens (regardless of religion, sex, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, etc.), and suppress freedom of speech and assembly and all that jazz. I would also like our country to have the moral rectitude to condemn those abuses, and deny support if those abuses are egregious — whether those countries are our allies, or not.

    My blood boils whenever I hear people sing Reagan's praises. His cozying up to abusive leaders in the Philippines and South and Central America (including promotion of the war on drugs while working cooperatively with drug-runners), not saying "boo" about Apartheid while dealing with South Africa, not to mention our role in supporting anti-Communist "freedom fighters" in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan…the list is much longer than this, but suffice to say: Reagan's hypocritical version of moral rectitude sucked, damaged our credibility worldwide, and caused long-term damage. We don't have to meddle in other countries, but I would be quite happy if we talked more about the importance of human rights — and walked it like we talked it, at home and abroad.

  16. Da Moose Says:

    Sorry. Can't stop the cheering. This is absolutely what is needed and long overdue. BTW, the Muslim Brotherhood is not as extremist as portrayed in Western media. Sure. They have extremist elements and many members formed the foundation for Al Qaeda 30 years ago but the group as a whole certainly should not be characterized completely as such. Egyptians are proud people. They see themselves as the gateway to the ME. They won't let their country devolve into some sort of paramilitary anti-western junta. The people are quite educated actually. Much more educated than the fools in this country. To tacitly compare Egypt to a Liberia or some such other African backwater is a bit provincial in my opinion.

  17. displaced Capitalist Says:

    True, but all you need is a nationalist uprising and it doesn't matter how educated people are. Remember the Khmer Rouge?

  18. Da Moose Says:

    This revoluion does not follow the blueprint of an ultra-nationalist revolution because its not anti-intellectual. It follows the blueprint of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Bloc.

  19. Arslan Amirkhanov Says:

    "I don't think the Bolsheviks wanted Stalin either."

    No they didn't, which is exactly why they elected him to the position of General Secretary in 1924, and refused to accept his resignation on several occasions including immediately upon his election to the aforementioned position.

  20. DS Says:

    @ Da Moose. I'm not sure is that is true anymore. If you read Sayyid Qutb's "Milestones", he talks about Islam being a progressive (as in the forward moving, not leftist) force for modernization in Egypt and the Islamic work. Remember that this is at a time when may regimes in the Near East were avowedly secular (at least outwardly), affiliated with the Soviets or Americans, very militaristic and repressive. He basically said that the type of regime that existed in Egypt and Syria was a western import so society should be based on something inherently Egyptian, like Islam. So the Muslim Brotherhood basically started out as an almost Islamic group that you would find in Turkey today where they believe Islam has a central role to play in their society but still believe in a secular state, democracy, womens and minority rights, etc. If I'm not mistaken the Muslim Brotherhood has drifted away from this view over the last 20 years or so and is a much more reactionary and religiously fundamentalist group than they were during the Cold War. I don't think that they are quite as moderate as you make them out to be (although I have no idea how much their views have changed over the last few years), but that being said, I don't think that the majority of Egyptians would support them anyway.

  21. Da Moose Says:

    Suddenly having a political stake moderates you immediately. No doubt that will happen here to the MB. It is because of this fact that it was a huge mistake for the Israelis and the US to sabatoge the Hamas elections back in 2006. HB only became extremist because they were actively shut out of political discourse in Egypt. At the end of the day, 99% of people, no matter the culture, want social stability for their families.

  22. Chicagojon Says:

    If Mubarak is toppled – and it appears likely if not necessarily imminent – what replaces him?
    My only hope is that we get to find out without the "help" of the CIA. I'm very glad that this is 2011 and not 1978~1992 (although that could probably read 2009 if I'm being cynical). It's quite likely that the outcome will not be the best for the US nor the people of Egypt, but self-governance takes time and the first step is the freedom to self-govern (see Hamas in Palestine 2006).

    If Mubarak is toppled, who fills Egypt's role as an intermediary between Israel and the larger Arab world? Does Egypt become a state friendly to terrorism, a la Syria? Do human rights abuses get even worse?
    My concern with these questions if if they were discussed before Mubarak was placed in power or before the signings of the military contracts (read: big shiny weapons) from 1978-2000 that totaled $38 billion in aid to Egypt — the second largest amount of military aid that the US doles out after Israel (take that Taiwan!)

    I am strongly in support of Egypt deciding what's best for Egypt, but I don't expect the most populous and most important Muslim nation on the planet to be in step with my nation's goals (e.g. blaming Muslims for everything, fighting to uphold leaders we like and diminish the rest and generally lashing out against the 'Middle East') if given a free voice in their government. In fact, I'd expect them to be drastically different, which is why I would encourage my government to look for ways to find common ground, treat Egypt as an equal and the leading voice for the Arab world and Muslims that it is/should be, to work with Egypt as a partner within those common goals and not as a convenient vassal, oh and to stop selling them F-16's, heavy tanks, patriot missiles, AMRAAM missiles, Stinger Vehicle Universal Launchers, and the blueprints to build M1A1 Abrams battle tanks. You never know — they might elect or choose a Reagan and start mucking about their region with their new toys.

  23. The Man, The Myth Says:

    Here are my thoughts. One striking thing I find about other areas of the world is the degree of education found in other places and not in the United States. I think other countries can better define what it is to be "Egyptian" or "Bulgarian" rather than us defining what an "American" constitutes. They even take pride in their nationality, which, unfortunately or not, I can't really do.

    Education plays a huge role in this. According to the CIA's world fact book on Egypt 71% of the population is literate (note – worth saying the numbers are bigger for males than females). Ours is 99%. So, as we measure intelligence, Egyptians have some problems. I would imagine though that any Egyptian cab driver or butcher or other person can tell you more about political and historic events that took place in the last 30 years than most Americans can for our nation.

    Since Mubarak appears to be toast it may be worth asking Egyptians what they hope to accomplish with a new leader and form of government. Based on everything I know about Mohammed ElBaradei he is probably a good candidate at least to lead Egypt into an election period in September.

  24. Zebbidie Says:

    Egypt relies on tourism. A virulently anti-west government kills tourism and throws millions into dire poverty. This is not popular or good, and no matter what we think, the Muslim parties like MB, hamas and Hezbollah genuinely care for their people, and it is this economic reality which will cause the majority to moderate the wild-eyed fanatics. Assuming o' course that there is no egregious interference to react badly to.

  25. mothra Says:

    The Muslim Brotherhood is the bogeyman that dictators like Mubarak like to use as a bargaining chip to stay in power. Listened to El Baradei this morning sing the praises of the Muslim Brotherhood — well, maybe not sing the praises, but was absolutely accepting their role in government. The Muslim Brotherhood is frightening only to Islamophobes.

  26. John Says:

    @bb: "You want every world leader we deal with to have the moral rectitude of George Washington's Sunday School teacher.

    Assuming they're not, would you have us exert ourselves diplomatically/militarily until we get what we want?"

    Not every world leader we deal with, but every world leader we openly support. Part of being an adult means that you work with people you don't necessarily agree with or even like, but part of being a *responsible* adult means that you do not support people who openly and flagrantly do wrong or evil. This means that, yes, you may need to trade or have political dealings with, say, a communist nation, or a nation with a national religion opposed to your own (if you have a national religion). But an ethical nation will have nothing to do with another nation that openly abuses the rights of its citizens.

    And no, I wouldn't have us exert ourselves. Unless and until the corrupt regimes of these other nations directly threaten us (And I don't mean some abstract "domino effect of Communism" scenario, I mean direct physical threat), we should have *nothing* to do with them. It is incumbent upon the people of a given nation to organize their own self-governance and to handle their own affairs. England was once a monarchy, and yet it managed to work into a parliamentary system without anybody else having to blow them up and foist the system upon them. Such is the case with many nations worldwide.

  27. Scott Stiefel Says:

    The South African apartheid regime was another victim of Washington's diminished need for 'anticommunist' allies as the Soviet boogeyman died.

  28. Da Moose Says:

    http://sarthanapalos.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/a-guide-how-not-to-say-stupid-stuff-about-egypt/

  29. Brandon Says:

    "I don't think the Bolsheviks wanted Stalin either."

    'No they didn't, which is exactly why they elected him to the position of General Secretary in 1924, and refused to accept his resignation on several occasions including immediately upon his election to the aforementioned position.'

    Oh Arslan, still fighting the good fight, I see. Why'd you change your name? It was so much cooler and oh so subversive when you named yourself after an obscure, deceased guerilla leader.