Foreign Policy Blogs

Those Dictators We Love

President Nixon and Suharto Chatting

White House press secretary Jay Carney offered a sharp rebuttal of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in The New York Times recently by saying, “unlike Russia, the United States stands up for democratic values and human rights around the world.”

History paints a somewhat different story. In contrast to President Barack Obama’s contention that the past 70 years of global security have been anchored by America’s “exceptionalism,” the United States has in fact never had a problem overthrowing democratically elected leaders or supporting the type of murderous thugs who valued human rights the same way people value real estate in Damascus these days. This time frame was, as legendary journalist John Pilger recently put it, “decades of militarism camouflaged as democracy.”

In Southeast Asia, the most notorious American supported thug of the Cold War was Suharto, the iron-fisted tyrant of Indonesia. Suharto, flush with U.S. financial aid, rampaged against his political opponents so much so that the bloodbath which transpired throughout Indonesia’s archipelago has been compared to Stalin’s endeavors in terms of sheer brutality. In completely obliterating the Indonesian Communist Party, Suharto purged more than 500,000 men, women and children over the course of 30 years.

Did U.S. politicians and policymakers articulate their outrage at this atrocity, this “moral obscenity?” No, but they did manage to furnish weapons, radio equipment, and intelligence to the regime. One White House official described Suharto as “our kind of guy.”

In December 1975, Indonesia invaded and occupied East Timor, causing untold misery and close to 100,000 deaths over the course of the following quarter century. 100,000 deaths. Sound familiar? And yet there were no threats of military strikes from the West. The only strikes were the striking of matches to light the cigars to celebrate the thievery of East Timor’s oil reserves which were privatized by Jakarta and given to Caltex.

There was also the Suharto regime’s behavior in West Papua which has been called genocide by the Yale Law School. Approximately another 100,000 lost their lives,  nearly ten percent of the population. Men were starved and tortured, women publicly raped, children orphaned. In Jakarta’s attempt to exploit the region’s wealth of gold, copper and timber, West Papuan villagers were routinely uprooted from their homes without any compensation, and without the required labor skills to survive such a transition. Forced labor of many indigenous tribes in West Papua was also common practice; resistance was typically met with yet more torture.

The United States claims to be the champions of democracy. What the country really is is the champion of neoliberalism and its fundamental tenants of privatization, deregulation, and trade liberalization.

If country X is run by a democratically elected leader and embraces neoliberal institutions, that is America’s preferred way of doing business. If country X is run by a dictator but also embraces the aforementioned neoliberal institutions, that’s fine too. But if country X embraces social equality, nationalization of its own resources, economic rights to the poor and working classes and fair trade, that country is going to have an American problem. And the excuses will be trotted out left and right by politicians on the left and the right to justify and rationalize American militarism: chemical weapons, WMDs, shutting down an opposition newspaper, communism.

The sad truth is that the real reasons are not that noble because every country, including America, always act out of self-interests. Sometimes those interests are manifested through natural resources, currency reserve fears, or geopolitical implications to the grand chessboard. As it is similarly manifested for every other powerful country in the world.

And that is not exceptionalism. It’s simply normal.

Photo: © Bettmann/CORBIS



Tim LaRocco
Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.

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