By Daniel Larison
Clearly, the U.S. has no consensus on how to handle dictators and whether they are a lesser evil or the root of insecurity. But the dictator problem is not going away: Other dictators will fight extremism in the coming years.
I agree that there is no consensus on this, but then there rarely has been one since the end of the Cold War. The early 2000s briefly created the illusion that there was broad agreement that the U.S. should actively promote political change in authoritarian states, but this was always highly selective and fairly cynical in its application. At the height of the so-called “freedom agenda,” semi-authoritarian “democrats” were supported and even celebrated so long as they were aligning their states with the U.S. and/or against a regional power, and fully authoritarian client regimes were typically left to their own devices.
The main disagreement today doesn’t seem to be over whether or not to undermine nominally “friendly” dictators, since virtually no one seems to think that the U.S. should be doing this. One can hate U.S. support for these regimes, or one can accept it or even approve of it, but no one is seriously arguing that the U.S. should seek to destabilize any of them. The sharpest dispute is over whether and how far the U.S. should go to bring down pariah or hostile regimes by proxy or through direct intervention. This is not primarily a debate over supporting political reform in other countries, but over whether the U.S. should be deliberately stoking or fomenting armed uprisings against other governments.
From late 2011 on, the debate over how to respond to conflict in Syria has been over whether to provide backing to an anti-regime rebellion and how much and what kind of military assistance to provide armed rebels to bring about the overthrow of the government. If Syria were not an ally of Iran, it is doubtful that there would have been much, if any, support for backing rebels after the Libya debacle. Indeed, most Syria hawks in the U.S. have been agitating for U.S. support for rebels in large part because of the damage they believe it would do to Iran’s position in the region. Absent that connection with Iran, it is hard to believe that there would still be such a fixation on regime change in Syria.
Among Republicans, advocates for arming rebels often wrap themselves in the Reagan Doctrine, and some opponents invoke Reagan to emphasize his reluctance to intervene directly in such conflicts. We see this in the quarrel between Cruz and his more interventionist critics. Both can find examples from Reagan’s presidency that support their respective positions, and so the tiresome appeal to Reagan’s authority settles nothing. The former ignore that the Reagan Doctrine mostly intensified civil wars without achieving the desired results. The latter rely heavily on Reagan’s indulgence of U.S.-aligned dictators and overlook his willingness to undermine communist and socialist governments. The dispute could be resolved easily enough if one could get each side to admit that Reagan was both too supportive of stoking foreign conflicts and too indulgent with anticommunist authoritarian regimes. But to admit that would be to acknowledge that the U.S. should try to avoid interfering in the internal conflicts of other states as much as possible, and neither Cruz nor his critics want to do that.
One solution to the “dictator problem” in U.S. foreign policy is to reconsider why the U.S. needs to have authoritarian client regimes at all. It was arguably useful in some cases to support anticommunist authoritarian rulers during the Cold War when the U.S. was engaged in a rivalry with the Soviet Union, but once the USSR was gone the value of these clients was greatly diminished. Like many Cold War-era relics, these relationships continued over the last twenty-five years despite growing evidence that they were useless or even a liability for U.S. security. Instead of concluding that the U.S. needed to pursue the dramatic political transformation of other countries, the smarter answer was and still is to disentangle and distance the U.S. from such regimes whenever it can. That should be paired with a general refusal to meddle in foreign conflicts in the recognition that the U.S. has little to gain from such meddling and that it isn’t the responsibility or business of our government to depose foreign rulers. The U.S. no more “needs” to subsidize the dictator of Egypt than it “needs” to overthrow the one in Syria, and it could give up on both without losing very much. As a result, there would be quite a few crises and conflicts that the U.S. wouldn’t try to police or influence, and we wouldn’t have to worry so much about the “dictator problem” because the U.S. would refuse to take sides in the conflicts involving them.