Dictator Disposal Has Pitfalls

Leaders in Grenada, Guatemala and Chile seemed potentially too cozy with the communists. Better dead than red, America seemed to say.

Panama's dictator had drug ties. The "Just say no" to drugs message was backed up with an invasion by U.S. forces.

Further back in history, Hawaii and Colombia irked American businessmen — until the hostile takeovers, that is.

And that's just the start of it. If United Nations weapons inspections fail to disarm Iraq, America's got plenty of dictator dumping experience to try putting Saddam Hussein out of a job.

However, if President Bush pursues his goal of "regime change" by force, he should pay close attention to history to make sure Saddam's ouster doesn't bring something even worse down the line, analysts say.

History suggests failure to plan ahead, stay the course and pay the costs might mean the difference between post-World War II Japan or Germany, and another Vietnam.

"You've got to have [a long-term reconstruction plan] in your head or else you're going to have a total mess on your hands," said Stephen Schlesinger, director of the World Policy Institute at the New School University in New York.

Initial successes have become "a total mess" more often than America would like. Some say they even led to the United States being sucked further into the Vietnam War, being haunted by thousands of deaths in Guatemala and Chile, and facing one of the most anti-American regimes in history — fundamentalist Iran.

For a scorecard on U.S.-driven coups and invasions, or more on the case of South Vietnam, see the related links.

Some can already see potential problems in Afghanistan and any post-Saddam Iraq.

"I have seen no sign that they've got all these [internal and exiled Iraqi] dissident groups together working from the same piece of paper, nor do they have any vision of what type of occupation authority they would set up," Schlesinger said. "Maybe they have secret plans on this that they just haven't publicized yet, but I just don't see it."

‘Our Son of a Bitch’

Not that the United States always installs democracies after showing dictators the door. Actually, said Michael Mandelbaum, author of The Ideas that Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the Twenty-First Century, "The American record in actually installing democracy in using the tools of foreign policy is not all that impressive."

In fact, after participating either directly, or indirectly in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973, things worked the other way around. Democratically elected governments were crushed and replaced by despots and killers — albeit pro-American, anti-communist despots and killers.

"The Cold War certainly slanted the American view of intervention and who its allies should be," said Schlesinger, who co-wrote Bitter Fruit, a book about the U.S.-supported leadership change in Guatemala. "The main mandate seemed to be just, 'Let's survive any confrontation with the Communists,' and if it meant dealing with dictators, it meant dealing with dictators."

Pragmatism can make strange bedfellows, historians say.

Referring to his Russian allies in World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, "If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons."

And former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza was once referred to as "a son of a bitch, but he's our [America's] son of a bitch." President Franklin Roosevelt and former Secretary of State Cordell Hull have both been credited with the comment.

But shifting circumstances can make today's ally tomorrow's enemy. Panama's Manuel Noriega and Iraq's Saddam were once Washington's allies before circumstances and shifting allegiances caused them to become bitter enemies of America.

The United States ultimately snatched Noriega in an invasion and later convicted him on drug trafficking charges in Miami. And following the Gulf War invasion of Iraq, America and its allies pressed stiff economic sanctions while pushing ever since for Saddam's ouster.

Democracy Getting Easier?

Now, however, some believe delivering democracy may be an easier goal.

"Since the Cold War has ended, other forms of government have been discredited … [and] there seems to be more momentum behind democracy promotion," said Mandelbaum, a professor of American foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "I wouldn't want to ignore history altogether, but I would say the promotion of democracy is more important in America now, and especially in confronting Iraq."

Election victories by anti-U.S., militant Islamic parties in some countries have not affected his belief that democracy can flourish in the Muslim world. In some cases, he said, gains by religious fundamentalists can be seen simply as a desire for free dissent, because fundamentalism may be one of the few forms of social activism allowed.

"You cannot advocate democracy in Saudi Arabia or you'll be put in jail," Mandelbaum said. "We have an inflated sense of how powerful the fundamentalists are in these countries because they get free reign."

Don’t Be ‘Slow and Cheap and Ill-Prepared’

But some say for democracy to work in Iraq or Afghanistan, the world must start setting the stage for it now — by ensuring the money, time and internal security to establish the rule of law, civil order and economic stability.

"You can stage an election in one day, but it takes much longer to establish the rule of law," Mandelbaum said.

Rick Barton, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, fears American budgetary and political constraints may mean, "We tend to be slow and cheap and ill-prepared" after modern military victories.

"In [post-World War II] Germany and Japan, we … had tremendous lead time," Barton said. "These [modern] wars come out of nowhere, and even when they're fought they take five minutes."

The increased speed makes it even more important for world powers to understand that small political decisions made now can cause harm later, said Barton, the co-director of a CSIS initiative to improve American post-conflict performance.

For instance, he said there might be roots for future problems in President Bush's recent assurances that "of course" Russian oil and economic interests in Iraq "will be honored." That's because if Iraq is forced to repay the entire $8 billion it owes Russia, and billions more it owes other countries, it could be like the "bad, bad deals" for World War I's losers that "set the stage for the next war," Barton said.

"Is it more important [for Iraq] to honor these obligations, or is it more important to have the cash flow within Iraq to rebuild a country that has been at a standstill for almost 30 years?" Barton asked. "I think we probably have to put a moratorium on all these deals. Secondly, I think we're going to have to renegotiate them — say giving [creditors] 10 cents on the dollar."

Likewise, early U.S. decisions in Afghanistan to pay off and rely upon that nation's fractious warlords for victory, instead of using a bigger U.S. force to impose order, also could haunt America and undermine democratization, Barton said.

"The marriage of convenience with the warlords to actually fight the battles means you've got the potential for a bloody divorce," Barton said. "You will have to have a bloody divorce if Afghanistan is to be a place to move and speak and gather. Remember, these are the guys that made the Taliban seem like a reasonable alternative."