The US liberal media seem to be suffering from amnesia.
In response to Donald Trump’s praise for Vladimir Putin, and his crawling visit to Saudi Arabia, numerous establishment doyens have complained that the US tradition of championing democracy and freedom throughout the world is being seriously endangered by Trump’s uncritical embrace of despots and dictators.
An editorial in the New York Times recently claimed: “The United States has long seen itself as a beacon of democracy and a global advocate of human rights and the rule of law … Mr. Trump erodes American’s reputation when he uncritically embraces those who show the least regard for [those traditions]”.
This must come as a shock to all those who have lived under US-backed dictatorships past and present. The truth is that US foreign policy has always involved overthrowing democratically elected governments and propping up brutal dictatorships.
Democracy or dictatorship
In her 1979 essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards”, Jeane Kirkpatrick, a Reagan administration adviser and future US ambassador to the UN, attempted to articulate what had always been a dominant ruling class opinion:
“[Dictatorships] do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope …
“[Revolutionary regimes] claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalised values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands.”
Kirkpatrick concluded that the US should encourage democracy in dictatorial regimes only if it would not lead to the threat of revolution; where that threat exists, it is necessary to support violence, terror and dictatorship.
This opinion was hardly new – it simply articulated the US foreign policy practice of the 20th century.
In response to the Russian Revolution of October 1917 – an event in which the majority of Russian workers and peasants put an end to the mass killing of the First World War – US president Woodrow Wilson ordered US troops to join invading forces from Great Britain and France.
Their mission was to kill and maim as many Russian workers and peasants as possible and eventually starve the population to death. At the height of the mass murder in December 1919, Wilson announced: “Let those beware who would take the shorter road of disorder and revolution”.
During the Second World War, Harry Truman, who was then a senator but would later become president, said: “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible”. At home, the war effort was used by president Roosevelt to ban the right to strike and violently suppress those who did not obey.
After hundreds of thousands of workers overthrew Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in the north of Italy at the end of the war, the US State Department ensured that the police, courts, military and civil service in the south remained in the control of former Mussolini supporters. They were seen as reliable figures as a workers’ revolution became an imminent threat.
The US would go on to help Greek military generals and conservative politicians, with the support of fascist paramilitary gangs, systematically murder hundreds of thousands of trade unionists, Communist Party members and anti-fascist sympathisers during the Greek Civil War.
And during the Arab revolutions of 2011, the Obama administration maintained support for pro-US dictators until it seemed no longer possible to do so. Obama called on Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak to step down, only to support general Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s military coup in 2013. As el-Sisi’s regime became increasingly repressive, the Obama administration increased the supply of money and weapons to him.
The US ruling class frequently expresses admiration for anti-democratic practices and dictators.
For example, the response of every leading newspaper to the Russian Revolution was one of horror and dismay. In November 1917, the editorial of the Washington Evening Star bemoaned: “It is a new revolution. The most serious aspect of the situation is that the new power in Russia declares for ‘an immediate just peace’”.
Their tune changed, however, during the height of Stalin’s forced industrialisation. This resulted in the rollback of material gains achieved by workers during the revolution. The New York Times drew a positive comparison between US business practices and Stalin’s ideas: “Improvement of the organisation of labour in industry in order to distribute the proper strength among factories and to end ‘irresponsible’ methods”.
Mussolini’s US admirers ranged from the mainstream media to presidents Hoover and Roosevelt. After his regime had overturned all democratic institutions, jailed and murdered hundreds of thousands of trade unionists, socialists and communists, US media tycoon William Randolph Hearst wrote: “Mussolini is a man that I have always greatly admired, not only because of his astonishing ability, but because of his public service”.
When Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet died in 2006, the Washington Post editorial board hailed “the free market policies that produced the Chilean economic miracle”. Pinochet had seized power in 1973 through a military coup and murdered tens of thousands of trade unionists and political opponents under his rule.
When a right wing coup momentarily removed Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez in 2002, the editorial board of the New York Times hailed it as “a victory for democracy”. Chávez had been democratically elected and enjoyed overwhelming support from workers and the poor.
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton had this to say about murderous Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak not long before he was overthrown: “I really consider president and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family”. After the coup of 2013, Clinton’s successor John Kerry hailed Sisi for “restoring democracy”.
While Obama refused to meet with Sisi, he had no qualms when it came to Saudi king Abdullah. After the latter’s death in 2015, Obama cancelled all his appointments to attend the funeral, at which he eulogised the dictator’s achievements: “At home, king Abdullah’s vision was dedicated to the education of his people and to greater engagement with the world”. This was in reference to a despot who routinely beheaded dissidents and denied women basic democratic rights.
Lenin described well the hypocrisy of such politicians and their media shills who mouth democratic rhetoric while supporting barbarity:
“All your talk about freedom and democracy is sheer claptrap, parrot phrases, fashionable twaddle or hypocrisy. It is just a painted signboard. And you yourselves are whited sepulchres. You are mean-spirited boors, and your education, culture, and enlightenment are only a species of thoroughgoing prostitution.”
For the US ruling class, the lie that they are committed to spreading freedom and democracy throughout the world helps legitimise the barbarity of imperialism. A whole network of institutions exists to reproduce this fiction daily – elected reps, policy experts, administrators, advisers, journalists etc. From the editorial board of the New York Times to the halls of the State Department, this is a narrative that they tell the world to justify their position as arbiter of the behaviour of other populations.
When Trump doesn’t stick to that narrative, the fiction starts to break down. The problem is not that Trump is embracing dictators – Obama did that as well. The problem is that Trump openly embraces despots precisely because of their authoritarianism.