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."

Washington’s initial expectations about Diem’s competence and commitment to democracy were delusional. Moreover, the decision to back a Catholic in a predominantly Buddhist country was a high-risk strategy. The aftermath of his ouster and death, though, proved that South Vietnam’s problems ran far deeper than Diem’s personal and political flaws. U.S. leaders desperately sought a new, effective leader, eventually settling on Nguyen Van Thieu. But like Diem before him, Thieu was unable to instill a sense of patriotism and a determination among South Vietnamese to thwart the communists, even with strong U.S. backing. And when American forces withdrew, the country collapsed in a little more than two years.

Likewise, Iraq’s problems are intractable, not just the result of Maliki’s misrule. The notion that he ever intended (or was able) to unite that fractious state’s antagonistic, ethnoreligious communities was naïve. Maliki is, and has always been, a Shiite partisan, and his constituents want to engage in payback to the Sunni minority that dominated Iraq’s politics and economy even before the era of Saddam Hussein. The dispossessed Sunni elite are now attempting to overturn that new Shiite-controlled order. The Kurds have enjoyed de facto independence for years in the northern territories they control, despite the fiction of a united Iraq, and they now flirt with making that independence official. Such disintegrative factors go far beyond Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies, general corruption and ineptitude, real as those defects might be.

U.S. officials and pundits need to practice far more skepticism about the prospects for unity and democracy in Third World countries. In most cases, both prospects are decidedly limited. Above all, 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. Even a dollop of realism would go a long way toward sparing future U.S. administrations the frustration and embarrassment we experienced in such places as Vietnam during the Cold War and are now experiencing again in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The National Interest, is the author of nine books and more than 550 articles and policy studies on international affairs.

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