The Blog

Bush Versus "Our SOBs"

The president's challenge to friendly dictators.

11:00 PM, Jan 30, 2005 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

FDR REPORTEDLY SAID IT FIRST, though the story could be apocryphal. Sizing up Anastasio Somoza, Nicaragua's brutal (but pro-American) dictator, Roosevelt quipped, "Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."

Prescient words, if he in fact spoke them. During the Cold War, America, through sheer necessity, cultivated ties with lots of SOBs, including military regimes in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile, Spain, Zaire, South Vietnam, Indonesia, South Korea, and the Philippines. Conservatives often justified such alliances by the lesser-of-two-evils canon. To wit, forging pacts with nasty pro-American dictatorships prevented the rise of even nastier pro-Soviet dictatorships. So it was both moral and pragmatic to prop up "our SOBs," lest "their SOBs" take power.

But when the Soviet Empire jumped on the fast lane to the ash heap of history, many felt the our-SOB principle should go with it. Absent a global Communist threat, they reasoned, how could America continue to support despots? Then came September 11, and the subsequent war on terror. Few questioned the prudence of warming up to Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf. If "coddling" Musharraf helped snuff out the Taliban--and it did--then we could overlook the general's autarchic rule. Likewise, hardheaded geopolitics demanded we keep our close links with tyrannies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Despite his pro-democracy rhetoric, Bush had to pick his battles wisely. And toppling U.S. enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq took precedence over nudging nominal U.S. allies toward liberalization. (Still, it was hard not to wince when Bush hosted Saudi crown prince Abdullah at his Texas ranch.)

Does the president's second inaugural mark a change in course? "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture," Bush boldly declared, "with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." Which means, in part, "We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people." No doubt those lines got an icy reception in Islamabad, Cairo, and Riyadh (not to mention Moscow and Beijing). Bush was sounding an umbrella anti-SOB policy--our SOBs included.

Or was he? Within two days, a senior White House official had told the New York Times that Bush's speech did not herald a broad shift in U.S. statecraft. "It's not a discontinuity, a right turn, but an acceleration, a raising of the priority," the official said. "One of the purposes of the president's speech was to get countries to do some self-examination and see where they are on accepting a vision of freedom and greater liberty for their people and to prod them a little bit." Whom will Bush prod? China, Russia, and the Arab world, for starters.

Read Bush's inaugural closely and you'll notice his timeframe for "ending tyranny" is long--"the concentrated work of generations." That's a crucial point. To borrow the late John Roche's maxim, the world is not made of Play-Doh. And fine-tuning the internal politics of autocratic societies is not like adjusting a thermostat (as Iraq amply demonstrates). Ultimately, shoving our SOBs in a democratic direction--by alternate means of rhetoric, diplomacy, economic aid, and trade--is both the moral and "realistic" thing to do. But not until we're certain that relatively liberal, pro-American governments will emerge in their places.

Ronald Reagan's second term offers a model here. The Gipper coaxed a series of friendly dictators--Marcos in the Philippines, Chun Doo Hwan in South Korea, and Pinochet in Chile--into peaceful early retirement. But he only did so when 1) Soviet power was on the wane and 2) it became clear that Communist forces would not seize control in Manila, Seoul, and Santiago. In other words, Reagan hung our SOBs out to dry when it was strategically convenient, but not before.

President Bush would do well to follow suit. For, alas, we still need our SOBs. And we'll need them long after Bush leaves office. That may not be morally satisfying. But international politics has ever been thus. As Charles Krauthammer once observed, "The essence of foreign policy is deciding which son of a bitch to support and which to oppose--in 1941, Hitler or Stalin; in 1972, Brezhnev or Mao; in 1979, Somoza or Ortega. One has to choose. A blanket anti-son of a bitch policy . . . is soothing, satisfying and empty. It is not a policy at all but righteous self-delusion."

Duncan Currie is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.