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America Loves Dictators

From Ngo Dinh Diem to Hamid Karzai.

| Thu Apr. 15, 2010 12:24 PM EDT

Death or Exile?

So is President Karzai, like Diem, doomed to die on the streets of Kabul or will he, one day, find himself like Thieu boarding a midnight flight into exile?

History, or at least our awareness of its lessons, does change things, albeit in complex, unpredictable ways. Today, senior US envoys have Diem's cautionary tale encoded in their diplomatic DNA, which undoubtedly precludes any literal replay of his fate. After sanctioning Diem's assassination, Washington watched in dismay as South Vietnam plunged into chaos. So chastened was the US Embassy by this dismal outcome that it backed the subsequent military regime to a fault.

A decade later, the Senate's Church Committee uncovered other US attempts at assassination-cum-regime-change in the Congo, Chile, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic that further stigmatized this option. In effect, antibodies from the disastrous CIA coup against Diem, still in Washington's political bloodstream, reduce the possibility of any similar move against Karzai today.

Ironically, those who seek to avoid the past may be doomed to repeat it. By accepting Karzai's massive electoral fraud and refusing to consider alternatives last August, Washington has, like it or not, put its stamp of approval on his spreading corruption and the political instability that accompanies it. In this way, the Obama administration in its early days invited a sad denouement to its Afghan adventure, one potentially akin to Vietnam after Diem's death. America's representatives in Kabul are once again hurtling down history's highway, eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror, not the precipice that lies dead ahead.

In the experiences of both Ngo Dinh Diem and Hamid Karzai lurks a self-defeating pattern common to Washington's alliances with dictators throughout the Third World, then and now. Selected and often installed in office by Washington, or at least backed by massive American military aid, these client figures become desperately dependent, even as they fail to implement the sorts of reforms that might enable them to build an independent political base. Torn between pleasing their foreign patrons or their own people, they wind up pleasing neither. As opposition to their rule grows, a downward spiral of repression and corruption often ends in collapse; while, for all its power, Washington descends into frustration and despair, unable to force its allies to adopt reforms which might allow them to survive. Such a collapse is a major crisis for the White House, but often—Diem's case is obviously an exception—little more than an airplane ride into exile for the local autocrat or dictator.

There was—and is—a fundamental structural flaw in any American alliance with these autocrats. Inherent in these unequal alliances is a peculiar dynamic that makes the eventual collapse of such American-anointed leaders almost inevitable. At the outset, Washington selects a client who seems pliant enough to do its bidding. Such a client, in turn, opts for Washington's support not because he is strong, but precisely because he needs foreign patronage to gain and hold office.

Once installed, the client, no matter how reluctant, has little choice but to make Washington's demands his top priority, investing his slender political resources in placating foreign envoys. Responding to an American political agenda on civil and military matters, these autocrats often fail to devote sufficient energy, attention, and resources to cultivating a following; Diem found himself isolated in his Saigon palace, while Karzai has become a "president" justly, if derisively, nicknamed "the mayor of Kabul." Caught between the demands of a powerful foreign patron and countervailing local needs and desires, both leaders let guerrillas capture the countryside, while struggling uncomfortably, and in the end angrily, as well as resentfully, in the foreign embrace.

Nor are such parallels limited to Afghanistan today or Vietnam almost half a century ago. Since the end of World War II, many of the sharpest crises in US foreign policy have arisen from just such problematic relationships with authoritarian client regimes. As a start, it was a similarly close relationship with General Fulgencio Batista of Cuba in the 1950s which inspired the Cuban revolution. That culminated, of course, in Fidel Castro's rebels capturing the Cuban capital, Havana, in 1959, which in turn led the Kennedy administration into the catastrophic Bay of Pigs invasion and then the Cuban Missile Crisis.

For a full quarter-century, the US played international patron to the Shah of Iran, intervening to save his regime from the threat of democracy in the early 1950s and later massively arming his police and military while making him Washington's proxy power in the Persian Gulf. His fall in the Islamic revolution of 1979 not only removed the cornerstone of American power in this strategic region, but plunged Washington into a succession of foreign policy confrontations with Iran that have yet to end.

After a half-century as a similarly loyal client in Central America, the regime of Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza fell in the Sandinista revolution of 1979, creating a foreign policy problem marked by the CIA's contra operation against the new Sandinista government and the seamy Iran-Contra scandal that roiled President Reagan's second term.

Just last week, Washington's anointed autocrat in Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, fled the presidential palace when his riot police, despite firing live ammunition and killing more than 80 of his citizens, failed to stop opposition protesters from taking control of the capital, Bishkek. Although his rule was brutal and corrupt, last year the Obama administration courted Bakiyev sedulously and successfully to preserve US use of the old Soviet air base at Manas critical for supply flights into Afghanistan. Even as riot police were beating the opposition into submission to prepare for Bakiyev's "landslide victory" in last July's elections, President Obama sent him a personal letter praising his support for the Afghan war. With Washington's imprimatur, there was nothing to stop Bakiyev's political slide into murderous repression and his ultimate fall from power.

Why have so many American alliances with Third World dictators collapsed in such a spectacular fashion, producing divisive recriminations at home and policy disasters abroad?

During Britain's century of dominion, its self-confident servants of empire, from viceroys in plumed hats to district officers in khaki shorts, ruled much of Africa and Asia through an imperial system of protectorates, indirect rule, and direct colonial rule. In the succeeding American "half century" of hegemony, Washington carried the burden of global power without a formal colonial system, substituting its military advisers for imperial viceroys.

In this new landscape of sovereign states that emerged after World War II, Washington has had to pursue a contradictory policy as it dealt with the leaders of nominally independent nations that were also deeply dependent on foreign economic and military aid. After identifying its own prestige with these fragile regimes, Washington usually tries to coax, chide, or threaten its allies into embracing what it considers needed reforms. Even when this counsel fails and prudence might dictate the start of a staged withdrawal, as in Saigon in 1963 and Kabul today, American envoys simply cannot let go of their unrepentant, resentful allies, as the long slide into disaster gains momentum.

With few choices between diplomatic niceties and a destabilizing coup, Washington invariably ends up defaulting to an inflexible foreign policy at the edge of paralysis that often ends with the collapse of our authoritarian allies, whether Diem in Saigon, the Shah in Tehran, or on some dismal day yet to come, Hamid Karzai in Kabul. To avoid this impending debacle, our only realistic option in Afghanistan today may well be the one we wish we had taken in Saigon back in August 1963—a staged withdrawal of US forces.

Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, which probes the conjuncture of illicit narcotics and covert operations over the past 50 years. His latest book, Policing America's Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State, explores the influence of overseas counterinsurgency operations on the spread of internal security measures here at home.

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