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Helping Hurts

Why Supporting Dictators Can Doom Them

Jimmy Carter and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in formal dinner in the Niavaran Palace in Tehran, Iran. 31 Dec 1978. Public Domain

Great powers have long supported unsavory dictatorships in pursuit of strategic interests, such as natural resources, military security, and financial gain. The relationship usually involves an impressive array of incentives, including diplomatic carrots such as treaty agreements and bilateral accords; economic aid in the form of fiscal grants and technical assistance; and military aid through training programs, arms transfers, and even troop deployments.

The underlying goal is usually to bring about political stability by boosting the recipient autocracy’s hold on power and economic productivity. In the United States, scholars and practitioners have long clashed over the moral dilemma inherent in such sponsorship. Liberal critics point out the contradiction of deploying the United States’ arsenal of democracy to help strongmen brutalize their own populaces. Realists prefer backing the bullies we know rather than risking potentially worse tyrants we don’t. Better a pro-American king, say, than an anti-Western theocracy.

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