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."

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