Diplomatic Reality: U.S. Relies On 'Useful Autocrats' : The Two-Way Once again, an American president and his diplomatic aides are walking a difficult line. They're caught between the desire to support the aspirations of demonstrators demanding democracy and freedom, and long-standing U.S. support for an autocrat.
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Diplomatic Reality: As In Egypt, U.S. Often Relies On 'Useful Autocrats'

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Diplomatic Reality: As In Egypt, U.S. Often Relies On 'Useful Autocrats'

Diplomatic Reality: As In Egypt, U.S. Often Relies On 'Useful Autocrats'

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There is something sadly familiar about this storyline. A thuggish regime represses its people. But in its dealings with us and our allies, it provides support, stability, intelligence and a bulwark against forces deemed more adverse to American interests. Then the tyrant is swept from power and Washington must court friends among the victims of his secret police, his critics who were driven into exile, people with no experience of government or statecraft.

We were wondering about the phenomenon of the useful autocrat, whether there's something inevitable about our relations with such people and how we disentangle ourselves from them. And we've called upon Joshua Keating, associate editor of Foreign Policy magazine. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOSHUA KEATING (Associate Editor, Foreign Policy Magazine): Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And who would make it into your rogues' gallery of useful autocrats?

Mr. KEATING: Well, there are quite a few in the world today, particularly in the Middle East. There's the Saudi monarchy. There's the government in Yemen and Jordan. Until last week, Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, would probably have also made the list of a very close ally of the U.S. - could definitely be described as an autocrat.

SIEGEL: In years past, we could've found them in Zaire, as it was called, under Mabutu or in the Philippines under Marcos.

Mr. KEATING: Right. Of course during the Cold War, there were quite a few of these autocratic regimes that the U.S. is providing support to, you know, in the name of countering communism - of course Mabutu in Zaire, Diem's regime in South Vietnam.

And the interesting thing now is how the sort of old logic of supporting anti-communist authoritarian regimes has been replaced by supporting regimes in places like, say, Ethiopia, who are providing support to us in the name of counterterrorism efforts.

SIEGEL: Do you think it's inevitable that we'll have allies or client states or regional surrogates that fall embarrassingly short of our standards of democracy or human rights?

Mr. KEATING: I do. And unfortunately, it's been a reality throughout U.S. history. I mean if you look at one of the most famous alliances with an autocrat, the U.S. probably would have had a hard time winning World War II without the help of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin, one of the worst mass murderers of the 20th century.

So, you know, in this delicate balancing game of U.S. foreign policy, often it's necessary to make alliances with autocratic regimes. The problem is, as we're seeing in Egypt, that these guys don't last forever. And often, when they face major challenges to their influence, the people on the streets remember who's been supporting these governments and providing them with weapons for years and years.

SIEGEL: David Brooks wrote and remarked last week that as often as such men are thrown out, the U.S. always seems to react as if it's never happened before. And he says there ought to be a playbook by now for this disengagement ritual. What do you think?

Mr. KEATING: That's a very good point. And I think that, you know, if you look at especially the Cold War experience, that many of these regimes that we supported - look at Iran, for instance. For years, the U.S. was supporting the shah's regime and in 1953, the CIA even backed a coup against a democratically elected leftist government there.

And when the revolution finally overthrew the shah in 1979, people definitely remembered that. And so, we wound up with another autocratic regime in Iran, and this time one that's very anti-American.

SIEGEL: It does seem that while it's often said that politics make strange bedfellows, foreign policy in times of war or international conflict makes really strange bedfellows.

Mr. KEATING: Well, what's kind of interesting to watch, too, is the way that the U.S. reaches out to governments surrounding China. If you look at Vietnam, you know, about 15 years after the U.S. finally normalized relations with that country, the relationship's never been closer. I mean, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton have both paid visits in the last year. We're giving them more military aid, civilian nuclear cooperation deal is pending. But of course this is really a very repressive one-party state.

Only two weeks ago, a U.S. diplomat was arrested by police while trying to speak with a dissident priest there. So, this is a case where, you know, Hillary Clinton would like to say that we can deepen our relationship with this country while still expressing our dissatisfaction with the human rights conditions there. But that balancing act can be a tricky one and it's really not clear how that's going to play out.

SIEGEL: Well, Joshua Keating, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. KEATING: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Joshua Keating, associate editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

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