Is Autocracy Really America’s Enemy?
The internal politics of foreign lands have rarely been America’s primary concern, especially during wartime.
Joseph Stalin, President Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill meet in Tehran in late 1943. (Corbis via Getty Images
In the wake of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, President Joe Biden declared that the United States was engaged in a new great battle for freedom. It is a battle between democracy, autocracy. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, said in Taiwan that there is a choice between democracy or autocracy. America’s determination to keep democracy alive in Taiwan and around the world is unwavering. “
But, is this really the world struggle America finds itself in today? Is this the greatest threat and challenge to the United States? Is democracy and autocracy in a climactic ideological crusade for the destiny of mankind? If that is the future, then it is certainly not America’s past.
When the fate of the Revolution hung in the balance in 1778, the decision of an autocratic French king to enter the war on America’s side elated Gen. George Washington, and French intervention proved decisive in the 1781 Battle of Yorktown that secured our independence.
A decade later, King Louis XVI was overthrown by the French Revolution and guillotined with Queen Marie Antoinette.
In World War I in 1918, the U.S. sent millions of troops into battle in France. They were decisive in the victory against the kaiser’s Germany. What were our allies in the Great War? The British, French and Russian empires, as well as the Italian, Japanese, and Russian empires were the greatest imperial, colonial, and military powers of that era.
In our war with Japan from 1941 to 1945, our foremost Asian ally was the autocrat Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek of China. The USSR’s Joseph Stalin was America’s greatest tyrant and crucial ally in the war against Hitler’s Germany.
During the Korean War of 1950 to 1953, the leader of the South Korean regime was the dictator-autocrat Syngman Rhee.
During the Cold War, which lasted for four decades before the collapse of the Soviet Empire or Soviet Union, autocrats were allies with the United States. The shah of Iran. Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Chile. Anastasio Somoza from Nicaragua. Gen. Francisco Franco of Spain. Anwar Sadat of Egypt. Saudi Arabia’s kings and princes.
During the Cold War, India was the largest democracy in the world and sided more often with Communist Russia than the United States. Our ally was Autocratic Pakistan. Gary Powers’ U-2 flight, shot down over the Soviet Union, initiated in Pakistan, as did Henry Kissinger’s secret mission to China in 1971 to set up the historic Nixon-Mao meeting of 1972. Many of our closest friends and allies in the Arab and Muslim world during Cold War were kings and emirs.
The seven-year war on Yemen, in which U.S. military support was essential, was waged to stop the Houthi rebels retaining the power that they seized in a revolt. U.S.-Saudi goal: restore a deposed autocrat.
This is not an argument that autocracy overrides democracy. It is meant to show that America’s primary concern has rarely been the internal politics in foreign lands, particularly during wartime. The key question, and it is rightly so, is this autocrat enlisted for the same cause as us, and fighting alongside our side? If so, the autocrat is almost always welcome.
When the Arab Spring erupted, and the dictatorial President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years of rule came to an end, we cheered the free elections that brought to power Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. One year later, Morsi was overthrown in a military coup. The power was seized by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Secretary of State John Kerry cheered that Egypt’s military was “restoring democracy.” Kerry explained that Morsi was removed at the request “millions and million of people.” Since then, Sisi has held tens of thousands of political prisoners.
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If Pelosi or Biden see the world as a struggle between democracy and autocracy, then a question arises: Why don’t we insist that our allies in countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Yemen hold regular elections to elect legitimate democratic rulers to replace the autocrats who currently hold the seats of power?
There is a historical question regarding the Biden-Pelosi description about the global struggle between democracy and autocracy. When did the internal political arrangements of foreign nations–there are 194 now–become a primary concern of a country whose Founding Fathers wanted it to stay out of foreign quarrels and foreign wars? Secretary of State John Quincy Adams stated that America “does not travel abroad to search for monsters to destroy.” She is the well-wisher for freedom and independence for all. She is the champion, vindicator and only hers. “
And so it was, long ago.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.