Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana’s famous axiom, warning that “those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them”, was written not only to caution, but to illustrate. Take, for example, the United States endless habit of establishing close ties with the dictators and despots of the word, irrespective the adverse consequence.
Where to start? During the ’70s and ’80s, the specter of communism in Latin America led sundry American presidents to lend their support to numerous right-wing tyrants there, most notably Chile’s mass murderer, Augusto Pinochet. Concern for democracy and human rights played second fiddle to his and others’ anti-communist posture. Included were Paraguay’s dictator Alfredo Stroessner, Somoza and sons of Nicaragua, and Panama’s Manual Noriega.
While the United States was busy lecturing the “third world” about the importance of upholding civil liberties, they were being trampled on daily in South America, financed by Washington no less.
In the Middle East and South Asia, a similar pattern emerges.
As the present-day propaganda campaign against Iran escalates, the memory and repercussions of the 1953 CIA and MI6 orchestrated coup deposing the popular and democratically elected Iranian prime minister, Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq (after he nationalized the country’s oil reserves) has not been forgotten. Operation Ajax restored the Peacock Throne under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose authoritarian rule was ruthlessly enforced by his Israeli-trained secret service, SAVAK, until the Islamic revolution of 1979. The United States role in toppling Mosaddeq still painfully resonates in the minds of both reformers and hardliners in Iran, making it unlikely that attempts to sow discord, let alone promote regime change, will find a receptive audience.
Saddam Hussein, whose Defense Department-funded war crimes against the Shia Arabs and Kurds of Iraq were always well-known, was another United States tool empowered to stop Ayatollah Khomeini from exporting his revolution throughout the region. Saddam soon became the bulwark against which the Arab kleptocracies (and their oil) were kept secure. The appalling nature of his regime was simply an afterthought.
This notorious list is by no means complete. Filipino president and embezzler Ferdinand Marcos, military strongman General Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan, and Egypt’s lifelong president Hosni Mubarak can easily be added. Whereas the full story behind the rise of each is obviously beyond the scope of this essay, the same set of circumstances which led all to rightfully earn the title of dictator is in motion today in Pakistan.
General Pervez Musharraf has followed in the footsteps of General Zia well. Musharraf came to power via military coup of the elected prime minister in 1999. Despite promising a quick transition to civilian rule, he instead suspended the constitution and ruled by martial law until 2001, at which time he appointed himself president. A referendum on his presidency was held in 2002 (predictably, he was the only candidate on the ballot). He broke his promise to step down as army chief in 2005, and eight years later, he continues to jointly hold the highest military and civilian posts in the country.
His disregard for the rule of law notwithstanding, the public commitment of Musharraf to participate in the “war on terror” has put him in the good graces of the Bush administration.
We will overlook for that moment that it was his Inter-Services Intelligence which gave rise to the Taliban in the first place.
This brings us to the current crisis which has Pakistan roiling. In March of this year, Musharraf suspended the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikar Chaudhry, under the pretext of misconduct and abuse of office. Not coincidentally, Musharraf is gaming to extend his presidential term by another five years. Many see Chaudhry’s dismissal as a way of removing any legal obstacle to this.
The chief justice’s suspension has triggered mass protests throughout Pakistan. New media restrictions were put in place to prevent full coverage of the deteriorating situation and limit criticism of the military. These were just lifted this past weekend under intense pressure.
Whether Musharraf will ultimately be able to withstand the growing demand for his resignation is unknown. Rumors are starting to fly that he may once again impose martial law if unrest should spread.
It was interesting to note that when questioned about American support for Musharraf during a televised Democratic debate, presidential candidate John Edwards replied in essence that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.
Unfortunately, the United States has been in bed with too many devils.
Several of their regimes have imploded in one form or another, but not before fueling resentment and hostility among the people toward the United States for maintaining them for so long.
When a blind eye is turned to the crimes committed by these dictators while they do our bidding, the citizenry naturally gravitate toward the opposition, whether it be a positive or negative force for change.
As has happened so many times in the past, by bolstering autocrats like Musharraf, the United States again finds itself on the wrong side of the equation. In such a volatile country and unstable region, disastrous results are sure to follow.
To put it in the words of another great American philosopher, it looks like déjà vuall over again.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on issues dealing with the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.