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An Empire of Autocrats, Aristocrats and Uniformed Thugs Begins to Totter | The Nation

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An Empire of Autocrats, Aristocrats and Uniformed Thugs Begins to Totter

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The article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

In one of history’s lucky accidents, the juxtaposition of two extraordinary events has stripped the architecture of American global power bare for all to see. Last November, WikiLeaks splashed snippets from US embassy cables, loaded with scurrilous comments about national leaders from Argentina to Zimbabwe, on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Then just a few weeks later, the Middle East erupted in pro-democracy protests against the region’s autocratic leaders, many of whom were close US allies whose foibles had been so conveniently detailed in those same diplomatic cables.

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Brett Reilly
Brett Reilly is a graduate student in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is studying US foreign...
Alfred W. McCoy
Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of A...

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Suddenly, it was possible to see the foundations of a US world order that rested significantly on national leaders who serve Washington as loyal “subordinate elites” and who are, in reality, a motley collection of autocrats, aristocrats and uniformed thugs. Visible as well was the larger logic of otherwise inexplicable US foreign policy choices over the past half-century.

Why would the CIA risk controversy in 1965, at the height of the cold war, by overthrowing an accepted leader like Sukarno in Indonesia or encouraging the assassination of the Catholic autocrat Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon in 1963? The answer—and thanks to WikiLeaks and the “Arab Spring,” this is now so much clearer—is that both were Washington’s chosen subordinates until each became insubordinate and expendable.

Why, half a century later, would Washington betray its stated democratic principles by backing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak against millions of demonstrators and then, when he faltered, use its leverage to replace him, at least initially with his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, a man best known for running Cairo’s torture chambers (and lending them out to Washington)? The answer again: because both were reliable subordinates who had long served Washington’s interests well in this key Arab state.

Across the Greater Middle East from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain and Yemen, democratic protests are threatening to sweep away subordinate elites crucial to the wielding of American power. Of course, all modern empires have relied on dependable surrogates to translate their global power into local control—and for most of them, the moment when those elites began to stir, talk back and set their own agendas was also the moment when it became clear that imperial collapse was in the cards.

If the "velvet revolutions” that swept Eastern Europe in 1989 tolled the death knell for the Soviet empire, then the "jasmine revolutions" now spreading across the Middle East may well mark the beginning of the end for American global power.

Putting the Military in Charge

To understand the importance of local elites, look back to the cold war’s early days when a desperate White House was searching for something, anything, that could halt the seemingly unstoppable spread of what Washington saw as anti-American and pro-communist sentiment. In December 1954, the National Security Council (NSC) met in the White House to stake out a strategy that could tame the powerful nationalist forces of change then sweeping the globe.

Across Asia and Africa, a half-dozen European empires that had guaranteed global order for more than a century were giving way to 100 new nations, many—as Washington saw it—susceptible to “communist subversion.” In Latin America, there were stirrings of leftist opposition to the region’s growing urban poverty and rural landlessness.

After a review of the “threats” facing the US in Latin America, influential Treasury Secretary George Humphrey informed his NSC colleagues that they should “stop talking so much about democracy” and instead “support dictatorships of the right if their policies are pro-American.” At that moment with a flash of strategic insight, Dwight Eisenhower interrupted to observe that Humphrey was, in effect, saying, “They’re OK if they’re our SOBs.”

It was a moment to remember, for the president of the United States had just articulated with crystalline clarity the system of global dominion that Washington would implement for the next fifty years—setting aside democratic principles for a tough Realpolitik policy of backing any reliable leader willing to support the United States, thereby building a worldwide network of national (and often nationalist) leaders who would, in a pinch, put Washington’s needs above local ones.

Throughout the cold war, the United States would favor military autocrats in Latin America, aristocrats across the Middle East and a mixture of democrats and dictators in Asia. In 1958, military coups in Thailand and Iraq suddenly put the spotlight on Third World militaries as forces to be reckoned with. It was then that the Eisenhower administration decided to bring foreign military leaders to the United States for further “training” to facilitate “the ‘management’ of the forces of change released by the development” of these emerging nations. Henceforth, Washington would pour military aid into the cultivation of the armed forces of allies and potential allies worldwide, while “training missions” would be used to create crucial ties between the US military and the officer corps in country after country—or where subordinate elites did not seem subordinate enough, help identify alternative leaders.

When civilian presidents proved insubordinate, the Central Intelligence Agency went to work, promoting coups that would install reliable military successors—replacing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who tried to nationalize his country's oil, with General Fazlollah Zahedi (and then the young Shah) in 1953; President Sukarno with General Suharto in Indonesia during the next decade; and of course President Salvador Allende with General Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973, to name just three such moments.

In the first years of the twenty-first century, Washington’s trust in the militaries of its client states would only grow. The United States was, for example, lavishing $1.3 billion in aid on Egypt’s military annually, but investing only $250 million a year in the country’s economic development. As a result, when demonstrations rocked the regime in Cairo last January, as the New York Times reported, “a 30-year investment paid off as American generals...and intelligence officers quietly called...friends they had trained with,” successfully urging the army’s support for a “peaceful transition” to—yes, indeed—military rule.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Washington has, since the 1950s, followed the British imperial preference for Arab aristocrats by cultivating allies that included a shah (Iran), sultans (Abu Dhabi, Oman), emirs (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Dubai) and kings (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco). Across this vast, volatile region from Morocco to Iran, Washington courted these royalist regimes with military alliances, US weapons systems, CIA support for local security, a safe American haven for their capital and special favors for their elites, including access to educational institutions in the United States or Department of Defense overseas schools for their children.

In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice summed up this record thusly: “For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy…in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.”

How It Used to Work

America is by no means the first hegemon to build its global power on the gossamer threads of personal ties to local leaders. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain may have ruled the waves (as America would later rule the skies), but when it came to the ground, like empires past it needed local allies who could serve as intermediaries in controlling complex, volatile societies. Otherwise, how in 1900 could a small island nation of just 40 million with an army of only 99,000 men rule a global empire of some 400 million, nearly a quarter of all humanity?

From 1850 to 1950, Britain controlled its formal colonies through an extraordinary array of local allies—from Fiji island chiefs and Malay sultans to Indian maharajas and African emirs. Simultaneously, through subordinate elites Britain reigned over an even larger “informal empire” that encompassed emperors (from Beijing to Istanbul), kings (from Bangkok to Cairo) and presidents (from Buenos Aires to Caracas). At its peak in 1880, Britain's informal empire in Latin America, the Middle East and China was larger, in population, than its formal colonial holdings in India and Africa. Its entire global empire, encompassing nearly half of humanity, rested on these slender ties of cooperation to loyal local elites.

Following four centuries of relentless imperial expansion, however, Europe’s five major overseas empires were suddenly erased from the globe in a quarter-century of decolonization. Between 1947 and 1974, the Belgian, British, Dutch, French and Portuguese empires faded fast from Asia and Africa, giving way to a hundred new nations, more than half of today’s sovereign states. In searching for an explanation for this sudden, sweeping change, most scholars agree with British imperial historian Ronald Robinson, who famously argued that “when colonial rulers had run out of indigenous collaborators,” their power began to fade.

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