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.