When I was abroad last semester, every bloke I met had some opinion on Americans, our government and our foreign policy. One such encounter, during which the stranger insulted President Bush, flourished into a beautiful friendship when he realized that I, too, dislike the president. Among my newfound friend’s numerous theories was an amusing one about the U.S. and Saddam Hussein. Back in the 1980s, when Saddam and the U.S. were good buddies, Saddam and Barbara Bush probably had a quick fling at some diplomatic function. This is why George Sr. developed a vendetta against Saddam and why George Jr. continues the family grudge today. Though this theory is quite disrespectful and absurd, albeit entertaining, it brings up a question I grapple with increasingly the more I learn about modern U.S. history – why do we, a democracy, seem to have an affinity for dictators?

Our support for dictators emerged as a Cold War tool to oppose anyone or anything with remotely Communist undertones. Whether or not fear of Communism was justified is a difficult question, but the tactic of encouraging oppressive dictators was a horrendous and disgraceful deterrent. I am alluding to the establishment, and continuous support, of the School of the Americas. This institute, founded in 1946, is a U.S. military-backed school to train militant leaders in Central and South America. Graduates of the SOA have been involved in coups in nations including Argentina, Honduras and even Mexico. Beyond the SOA, though, the CIA has backed coups and tyrants such as General Manuel Noriega in Panama, General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Mohammad Reza Pahlevi “The Shah” in Iran and President Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire. The list goes on, but the issue is clear: the United States has a history of supporting brutal despots around the globe so long as they further our interests. Obviously, therefore, President Bush was mistaken in his State of the Union address when he said, “Throughout the 20th century, small groups of men seized control of great nations . [they] were defeated by the will of free peoples, by the strength of great alliances and by the might of the United States of America.”

Presently, the most significant U.S.-backed totalitarian is now-enemy Saddam Hussein. We supported him in the 1980s, as mentioned earlier, because he was at war with our common enemy Iran. To assist Saddam, Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. endorsed the sale of goods for biological and chemical warfare. Saddam used those weapons on his own Kurdish citizens in late 1987, yet the U.S. continued to back Saddam. Suddenly in 1990, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, threatening our oil interests in the Middle East, the US “realized” that he was a depraved guy and needed to be stopped – a position that our lawmakers maintain today. And do not get me wrong – I agree that Saddam is a bad man, but I probably would have grasped that before he used chemical weapons in 1987. Thus, it makes sense that he has a biological and chemical arsenal now, considering that we were some of the suppliers twenty years ago. So does our opposition to Saddam, and furthermore to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il, mean that we have seen the error of our ways and will fight repressive dictators? After all, President Bush did say in the State of the Union address: “we will not permit the triumph of violence in the affairs of men – free people will set the course of history.”

Unfortunately, I highly doubt that we will aide other oppressed peoples – the only dictators we contest are those who supposedly pose a threat to the U.S., such as Saddam, Castro, and Qaddafi. Therefore, we ignore the big picture of autocracy because we disregard the plight of repressed people where there are no potential political or economic gains. For instance, why is the U.S. not taking action against regimes in not-so-oil-rich countries such as Zimbabwe? In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe was “reelected” in a highly controversial and corrupt election in 2002. Since then, Mugabe has implemented an oppressive administration that includes seizure of white-owned farms and alleged torture of opposition groups. Nevertheless, his severe crimes do not seem to motivate the U.S. to liberate Zimbabwe’s citizens. Another example of American inaction is in Saudi Arabia; we continue to ally ourselves with the harsh government because it maintains our oil interests in the Arabian Peninsula. Thus the battles we choose versus those we discount indicate an element of hypocrisy; America defends liberty only when there are political and economic interests and overlooks oppression when there is no element of self-gain.

I am not advocating that we send our troops into every country that has a totalitarian leader. That would contradict notions of global sovereignty, just as installing dictators also violates international law and human rights. Nonetheless, there seems to be a large element of duplicity in America’s historical and contemporary approach to autocratic governments. If we, as a hegemonic power, are to be self-appointed guardians of freedom in the world, we need to see the big picture of liberty and to consider the consequences of our actions. Human rights and the integrity of democracy are at stake; if we have truly evolved beyond Cold War tactics, we will use peace to combat all totalitarian regimes instead of perpetuating violent cycles of self-interest.

Noah Riseman is a junior in the College. Plenty Left To Say appears every other Friday.

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