From Stalwarts to Scapegoats: America's Foreign Clients

"We must stop portraying foreign political figures in heroic terms, only to repudiate those same figures when they predictably fail to live up to our fantasies."

As forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) conquer major chunks of Sunni-inhabited areas in Iraq and advance on Baghdad, it has become fashionable among U.S. politicians and pundits to place the blame for the latest debacle at the feet of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Just a few years ago, though, those same opinion leaders hailed him as the symbol of a new, democratic Iraq. Maliki’s journey from Washington-backed national savior to scapegoat is a familiar one.

Time and time again, U.S. leaders and their media allies have anointed a Third World political figure as the latest Great Pro-Western Democratic Hope, only to become disillusioned when that leader fails to live up to Washington’s unrealistic expectations. Then, that leader becomes the cause of everything that has gone wrong in his country, combined with the implicit assumption that a change of leadership would make the troubling developments go away. It is a lazy, naïve style of foreign policy that ignores far deeper causes of instability in many of Washington’s client states.

The transformation of Maliki’s image from one of a democratic statesman to a divisive and inept sectarian political hack is similar to what has occurred in Afghanistan, another arena of dashed U.S. nation-building aspirations. In the years immediately following Washington’s ouster of the Taliban regime in Kabul, U.S. officials portrayed Hamid Karzai as someone who was committed to forging a modern, democratic Afghanistan. A few critics in the United States derided him as little more than the mayor of greater Kabul, and argued that his ability to stay in power at all was heavily dependent on the continued backing of U.S. occupation forces. American enthusiasts of Karzai’s rule, however, summarily dismissed such cynical observations.

Evidence gradually mounted, though, about the growing corruption (both financial scandals and indications of stolen elections) surrounding Karzai and his cohorts. Washington’s criticism of Karzai’s performance in office spiked, and calls for new leadership to save Afghanistan from sliding back into chaos have steadily grown. But placing the blame for Afghanistan’s woes solely, or even primarily, on Karzai ignores the deep political and ethnic fissures in that country. Examining those factors would require admitting that perhaps America’s nation-building hopes there were unrealistic from the outset, and U.S. officials are not inclined to engage in such introspection.

The pattern of investing excessive hopes in the leadership of a client and then turning on him when unpleasant reality intrudes goes back decades. A prominent example occurred during the late 1950s and early 1960s with respect to South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Powerful lobbies in the United States prodded Dwight Eisenhower’s administration to back Diem’s government against Hanoi’s attempt to reunify Vietnam under communist auspices. In a May 1955 Life Magazine editorial, publisher Henry Luce asserted that Diem was “a Roman Catholic and a simon-pure Vietnamese nationalist, thus doubly proof against Communist force.” Luce went on: “Diem’s growing strength immensely simplifies the task of U.S. diplomacy in Saigon. The task is, or should be, simply to back Diem to the hilt.” Other prominent media outlets were equally laudatory. Max Lerner of the New York Post hailed him as nothing less than a “calendar saint.” Newsweek correspondent Ernest K. Lindley described Diem as “one of the ablest free Asian leaders.”

Just a few years later, Diem’s image in the United States was very different, as his repressive policies, and South Vietnam’s instability, became increasingly evident. Undersecretary of State George W. Ball noted caustically, “we were rapidly discovering that the tiger we were backing in Vietnam was more of a [corrupt] Tammany tiger than a disciple of Thomas Jefferson.” Television broadcasts showing Buddhist monks engaging in self-immolation in the streets of Saigon and other cities to protest Diem’s rule caused a rapid decline of support both among U.S. officials and the American public. “Nobody liked Diem,” Attorney General Robert Kennedy admitted. “But how to get rid of him and get somebody who would continue the war, not split the country in two and, therefore, lose not only the war but the country—that was the great problem.” Washington eventually signaled to South Vietnamese generals that the United States would not object to a coup against Diem.