Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


JULY 2008

When President George Bush visited Jefferson's home at Monticello on July 4 to welcome seventy-two new U.S. citizens sworn in that day, he cited the third president's words about Americans' responsibility to spread their ideas of freedom and democracy to other parts of the world.

Those thoughts were in keeping with Bush's and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's emphasis on promoting democratic government and human rights in countries where they are denied.

How should we think, then, when Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's dictator, thumbs his nose at the United States and the UN when they protested his use of police and hired gangs to intimidate and assassinate opposition leaders so he could remain as president after losing a democratic election in April?

In his speech at Monticello the president cited a Burmese national who was receiving his citizenship that day, but he did not mention Myanmar's (Burma) brutal military who run that country and prevented American aid workers from getting assistance to millions of destitute people following the country's devastating floods.

Another new citizen was from Sudan, a country whose government defies the United States and the world regarding the oppressed people in Darfur.

How should American presidents promote freedom in places like Zimbabwe, Myanmar, and Sudan where leaders refuse to change their fierce, anti-democratic policies?

Paul Collier, writing in the Washington Post, argues that the U.S. government should use covert methods to instigate coups in Zimbabwe and Myanmar. He claims that economic sanctions are not working in either country to bring about change. ("The Only Answer to the Mugabes of the World May be a Coup," June 24)

Other observers think that economic sanctions are working, that living standards in both Zimbabwe and Myanmar are rapidly declining and will eventually lead to a change in policies or an internal coup. Skeptics think the countries' brutal leaders have no fear of overthrow as long as they retain tight control of the police and the military. Mugabe's current defiance appears to support this view.

Despite America's promotion of freedom and human rights, the reality is that few dictators or authoritarian regimes are persuaded to relinquish or share government power.

A fundamental question for U.S. presidents and policymakers is this: under what circumstances is the United States justified in going beyond economic sanctions and propaganda to the use of armed force to oust a dictatorship? The answer should be obvious: only when a vital U.S. interest is at stake in that country.

Here are several examples of where a president made that assessment.

The Philippines. President Ferdinand Marcos, although elected in two democratic elections, had become increasingly authoritarian and hated by the Filipinos. After losing an election in 1986, he intended to stay on. But strong pressure from President Reagan forced him into exile, and the Philippines has resumed its flourishing democracy.

Why did Ronald Reagan care about Philippine democracy? Because the United States had fostered freedom there when it was a colonial possession during the 1930s. Since the Philippines gained independence in 1946, it has been a good U.S. ally.

Panama. President George H.W. Bush decided in 1989 to use force in Panama to remove its drug-trafficking dictator, General Manuel Ortega, who was seen as a threat to America's stake in the Panama Canal. He was seized by U.S. troops and brought to the United States for trial. Panama then returned to democracy and remains a good U.S. ally.

Serbia. President Bill Clinton used force against Serbia in 1999 to force its ruthless leader, Slobodan Milosevic, to evacuate his troops from their ethnic cleansing operation in Kosovo. After seventy-seven days of U.S. bombing, Milosovic withdrew the troops and was soon ousted from power. America's interest in this case was heavily influenced by European fears that Serbia was a serious threat to NATO security in the Balkans.

Afghanistan and Iraq. George W. Bush's decision to invade Afghanistan in 2001 was retaliation against its Taliban regime for complicity in the 9-11 attacks on the United States. However, Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was based on his concern over Iraq's threat to security of the oil-rich Persian Gulf states. A longer-range danger for Bush was posed by Iran's efforts to build nuclear weapons with a delivery capability.

The fact that Saddam was a brutal dictator who terrorized his own people and had invaded Kuwait helped the president justify his action. But the Iraqi dictator was not an imminent threat to the United States, and the action deeply divided America and its allies.

The United States has not used force since World War II to overthrow another regime solely because it opposed personal freedom or refused to held free elections.

The promotion of democracy by Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George Bush was designed to build hope among oppressed peoples everywhere, but not to the extent of using U.S. forces.

Promotion of democracy abroad should never go beyond imposing economic sanctions, unless the U.S. interest at stake is truly vital.

File last modified on Saturday, 19-JUN-2008 4:52 PM EST

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