'Our S.O.B.s' and America's Revolutionary Dilemma Abroad

How can the U.S. promote social change without opening the gates to anti-American forces?

"An s.o.b. but our s.o.b." Franklin Roosevelt's description of the Dominican Republic's dictator Rafael Trujillo might equally hold for America's autocratic friends in the Middle East today, like the embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

For a nation born in the crucible of revolution, with a self-identity as the champion of individual rights and democracy, the United States has long held an ambivalent view of foreign uprisings against tyranny.

America's dilemma in Egypt today is the same predicament it faced in the Cold War. How can the United States promote social change without opening the gates to illiberal and anti-American forces?

In 1961, Trujillo, the self-described "Genius of Peace," "Protector of Fine Arts and Letters," and "The First and Greatest of Dominican Chiefs of State," was assassinated. President John Kennedy forecast the future of the Caribbean neighbor:

There are three possibilities, in descending order of preference: a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime, or a Castro regime. We ought to aim at the first, but we really can't renounce the second until we are sure that we can avoid the third.

Kennedy hoped that developing countries would follow the U.S. path, by casting off tyranny and choosing the blessings of "decent democracy." During the Cold War, we searched for liberal anti-communists who would reform at home while joining us in battle against Moscow.

Meanwhile, the U.S. feared that revolution would deliver a developing country into the hands of the communists. These guys aren't your Founding Fathers' revolutionaries. Whereas Americans threw tea into the harbor, the communists wanted to throw the capitalist system overboard.

After 1945, driven by a mixture of hope and fear, the United States lurched between bolstering friendly dictators and urging democratic reforms. At times, the dread of communism blocked out the sun, and the United States threw in its lot with the despots. Richard Nixon said of the autocratic regime in South Korea: "they are hard to work with, but thank God they're on our side."

Periodically, Americans grew disillusioned with backing repressive regimes, shifted gear, and urged political and social reforms. Tyranny was inherently distasteful, but worse than that, dictatorship could deepen the opposition and aid the communist cause.

However, the introduction of reforms often led to demands for more change, and Washington quickly grew nervous. So the wheel turned again, and we backed the devil we knew.

JFK's quandary is the same revolutionary dilemma that the United States faces in Egypt today. Just swap Mubarak for Trujillo, Ahmadinejad for Castro, and Islamism for communism.

Washington hopes that secular moderates will emerge in Egypt and usher in a new age of freedom and economic development -- with Mohamed ElBaradei cast in some eyes for the part of Thomas Jefferson.

But the United States also fears that the Egyptian revolution will spiral into dangerous extremism and anti-Americanism. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum argued that, "We abandoned [the Iranian shah] and what we got in exchange was from the people if you will, notionally, was a radical Islamist regime. That happening in Egypt would have a profound effect on the Middle East."

As in the Cold War, recent U.S. policy in the Middle East has swung back and forth, with Washington tentatively pushing for liberalization and then pulling back.

The Obama administration's parsed words, the tightrope it's walking by backing the reformers without abandoning the regime, the calls for "a path of political change that leads to a future of greater freedom and greater opportunity and justice" -- it all reflects a decades-old ambivalence about foreign revolution.

And these fears are understandable. Revolutionary movements don't always reflect the will of the people. In 1917, the Russian Bolsheviks manipulated the domestic upheaval to set up a tyrannical dictatorship. "All animals are equal," announced the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm: "but some animals are more equal than others."

There are Islamist elements that seek democratic elections in Egypt and elsewhere, precisely so they can win the vote, and then bring the curtain down on democracy. As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian once described the agenda of certain Islamist groups in Algeria, "one man, one vote, one time."

But the perils of backing dictators are equally stark. Washington has ended up apologizing for the perpetrators of horrendous human rights abuses. The United States can find itself fighting the forces of popular revolution and nationalism -- which as we saw in Vietnam, is a losing struggle.

The only long-term solution for the United States is to align its interests and values with popular aspirations in the Middle East. The forces of democratization and social change could create a second Iran in Egypt, but they can also bring down the Mullahs in Tehran.

We may sometimes need to share bread with dictators, but as Shakespeare wrote in The Comedy of Errors: "He must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil."

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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