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Helping Hurts

Why Supporting Dictators Can Doom Them

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.

Yet lost in this debate is the question of whether supporting dictatorships actually works. That is, whether diplomatic, economic, and military assistance facilitate long-term stability in client regimes. Historical evidence from the Middle East suggests otherwise. In many cases over the past several decades, external aid has had the perverse effect of sabotaging future survival.

yom_helpinghurts_bushmubarak.jpg Reuters

U.S. President George W. Bush walks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from the Oval Office of the White House to the official residence, April 2, 2001.

Bush and Mubarak U.S. President George W. Bush walks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from the Oval Office of the White House to the official residence, April 2, 2001. When suddenly empowered by hegemonic support, dictators often insulated themselves from the demands of their own societies, investing not in coalition-building but instead in violent repression. When serious crises eventually struck, the dictators found themselves lacking domestic allies and popular constituencies that could neutralize rising tides of opposition. And Western patrons such as the United Kingdom and United States could only do so much from a distance. Indeed, examples abound of brutal dictatorships falling to revolution despite having received profuse diplomatic, economic, and military support from Western capitals.

In Iraq, the 1958 popular coup exterminated the Hashemite monarchy, which the British had installed and heavily supported for the previous four decades. The 1979 Iranian Revolution tore down the Pahlavi dynasty, despite its status as one of the United States’ Arab Spring in February 2011 upended the Mubarak autocracy, despite it having received nearly $67 billion in economic and military aid from Washington since 1981. In such cases, great power involvement secured up to a decade of initial stability—and then things fell apart.

Read the full article on ForeignAffairs.com