As Egypt staggers toward an uncertain future, a familiar complaint is making the opinion rounds in the United States -- namely that Egypt's current predicament is at least in part traceable to the supposed American fondness for propping up corrupt dictators around the globe.
From the left, Salon magazine offered that "this is a good moment to take a look at where else in the world American taxpayer dollars are helping to prop up dictatorships with poor human rights records," while on the center/right, Robert Kagan demanded, "What are we going to do -- support dictators for the rest of eternity because we don't want Islamists taking their share of some political system in the Middle East?"
The U.S. has been accused of backing autocrats and therefore engendering the enduring hostility of persecuted populations for more than half a century. Throughout the Cold War, the standard accusation was that America was responsible for every act of every authoritarian regime on the planet -- provided it was outside the Soviet sphere.
There is no doubt that American policymakers have made (and continue to make) their share of mistakes. There is also no question that the U.S. has allied itself with some despicable characters over the years.
But while this name never seems to pop up on lists of disgraceful U.S. allies compiled by the left, the first one that ought to be mentioned -- because his was arguably the worst regime we ever "backed" -- is Joseph Stalin.
During the Second World War, the U.S. was in a formal alliance with Uncle Joe, and provided his murderous regime with support and war materiel worth millions. In light of the stakes at the time -- a world dominated by Nazi Germany -- it seemed to be an acceptable accommodation. According to the logic we're hearing now, this ought to have embittered the Soviet people toward the U.S. in perpetuity.
But life is complicated -- and the former Soviet subjects don't seem even to view Stalin himself (responsible for roughly 20 million deaths) all that harshly.
Yes, the U.S. maintained relationships, some quite friendly, with dictators around the globe. But the U.S. is not God. It didn't separate light from darkness and create the world. It has, with infrequent exceptions, had to deal with the world as it is. In 1945, when U.S. world leadership began, there were only about 30 countries in the world that could fairly be described as free. By 1973, according to Freedom House, of 151 nations in the world, only 44 were free. Today, among 194 countries, 87 are considered to be free. Freedom is expanding, and for that we rejoice. But progress is slow and painstaking.
The United States did push and prod a number of authoritarian allies toward democracy and freedom. In Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines, Chile, El Salvador, Taiwan, and elsewhere, American pressure helped to ease dictators out the door and usher in more pluralistic governments.
If we sometimes allied with dictators with like Anastasio Somoza and the Shah of Iran, we were also in the vanguard of nations seeking to free many millions more from far worse regimes.
But the business of reforming allies is tricky. Former President Jimmy Carter made "human rights" his foreign policy mantra -- but he applied it very selectively. And arguably by leaning on the Shah, he paved the way for some of the world's worst human rights abusers to take power in Iran. Former President George W. Bush's spoke movingly of his "freedom agenda" for the Middle East and warned that so long as "the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export." That may be true. But given the nature of the region, it's no simple matter to get from A to B, as Bush discovered.
Soon after delivering those words, the U.S. sent a loud signal of anger to Hosni Mubarak for imprisoning a human rights activist. The secretary of state canceled a planned trip. But a year later, Secretary Rice was back in Cairo -- though Ayman Nour remained in prison. And she was followed to Egypt by Barack Obama.
Mubarak is a foul dictator who has tortured dissenters, stoked vicious anti-Semitism (despite the peace treaty with Israel), and prevented the emergence of peaceful alternative parties. But as in other cases of dealing with dictators, U.S. motives were hardly reprehensible. We supported the regime that was key to maintaining peace with our ally Israel, that cooperated in the war against Islamic terror, and above all, that was preferable to the likeliest alternative. It must still be our aim, more than any other, to try to prevent an even worse regime from emerging from the current chaos.
We didn't create the world. We don't prefer to back autocrats. But it's rough out there, and unrealistic hopes have led to disaster before.