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Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units near the entrance to the town of Kobani, Syria, Nov. 19, 2014 (AP photo by Jake Simkin).

American Foreign Policy’s Old Problem With Dictators Won’t Go Away

Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015

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. ...

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