For the past century, the United States has had a complex, shifting relationship with dictators. On one hand, America’s liberal instincts convinced the public and its elected representatives that democracy was the only stable form of government over the long run. But after the U.S. became a global superpower following World War II, this was counterbalanced by a conservative quest for order, stability and a carefully modulated pace of change. These two sides of the American strategic psyche were often in conflict when it came to dealing with dictators around the world.
As decolonization blended with rising Soviet power during the first three decades of the Cold War, the conservative side shaped American security policy. Friendly dictators were tolerated, even embraced. Then the Vietnam fiasco challenged this position. The political left argued that backing dictators encouraged them to resist calls for reform, leaving violent revolution as the only locomotive for change. Support for friendly dictators, the left argued, might be penny-wise but was pound-foolish. Then, during President Ronald Reagan’s administration, U.S. policy toward friendly dictators shifted again. While Reagan and his fellow Republicans in Congress knew that conservative dictatorships were not the preferred form of government, they were better than communist or pro-Soviet ones.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the American perspective on the dictators pivoted one more time. Policymakers defined “rogue states” ruled by the likes of Saddam Hussein in Iraq as the primary threat to global order. When the Sept. 11 attacks showed that al-Qaida and the transnational extremist movement it grew out of were an even more pressing challenge, President George W. Bush’s administration did not abandon what by then was a strong focus on rogue state dictators. Instead, it melded the two. While there was no evidence that al-Qaida relied on support from Saddam or other dictators, Bush concluded that replacing dictators with democracies was an integral part of the fight against extremism. When removing Saddam fueled transnational extremism rather than undercutting it, the connection of dictatorship and extremism began to fray. The body blow to it came with the rise of militant groups affiliated with al-Qaida and the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Libya after NATO had intervened there in 2011 to oust longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi.