US leaders routinely emphasize that America’s foreign policy is based on support for the expansion of freedom around the world. But as I point out in a recent article in the National Interest Online, Washington’s behavior frequently does not match the idealistic rhetoric. Too often, US policymakers seem to favor even brutal and corrupt authoritarian allies over boisterous, unpredictable democratic regimes.
During the Cold War, US administrations enthusiastically embraced “friendly” autocratic governments in such places as South Korea and the Philippines—even when there were viable democratic alternatives. Because it was uncertain whether democratic governments would be as cooperative with US foreign policy aims, officials preferred dealing with more compliant autocrats. Worse, US leaders repeatedly misrepresented such allies to the American people as noble members of the “free world.”
The tendency was especially pronounced in the Middle East, and that cynical policy has persisted longer there than in other regions. It began early, as the US Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow Iran’s elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953 and restore the Shah to power as an unconstrained monarch. The Shah became America’s chosen Persian Gulf gendarme for the next quarter century, despite the regime’s appalling human rights record and pervasive corruption. Elsewhere in the region, Washington developed a cozy relationship with Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak that lasted three decades, even as he and his military cronies looted and brutalized that unhappy country.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems just as hypocritical as its predecessors when it comes to relations with Egypt and other Middle East countries. US leaders were reluctant to cut Mubarak loose even as pro-democracy demonstrations surged throughout Egypt in 2011. In a PBS interview, Vice President Joe Biden even objected to describing Mubarak as a dictator and rejected calls for him to step down.
Similar sentiments were evident after General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi led a coup against Egypt’s first elected president, Mohammed Morsi. Obama administration officials steadfastly refused even to describe the action as a coup. Not only has Washington continued to lavish weaponry on Egypt’s military, it has ignored mounting evidence of egregious human rights abuses by the Sisi regime. And as with respect to Mubarak, US officials pretend that Sisi is not a dictator, even though he became “president” through a blatantly rigged election that gave him more than 96 percent of the vote. American leaders used to scorn the results of such phony elections in communist countries, but they chose to view the farce in Egypt as progress toward a mature democratic system.
Hatred of hypocrisy is an emotion that tends to occur throughout very different cultures. US leaders do not help America’s reputation when they profess a commitment to freedom and democracy while they fawn over such allies as thuggish Egyptian dictators and the odious Saudi royal family. Victims of oppression were unlikely to take Washington’s alleged dedication to liberty seriously when they saw President George W. Bush strolling through the fields of his Texas ranch hand in hand with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah as though they were intimate friends.
Washington needs to walk the walk as well as talk the talk when it comes to supporting freedom as a key component of its foreign policy. It should at least stop undermining balky democratic regimes and embracing thuggish autocracies.
This post first appeared at Cato.org.