Dealing With Dictators, The U.S. Playbook Varies

Feb 22, 2012
Originally published on February 22, 2012 4:44 pm

What is America's policy when it comes to dictators? Well, it depends.

The U.S. has adopted different approaches toward different dictators and authoritarian regimes in recent years. In some cases — notably Iraq and Afghanistan — the U.S. military invaded to change the leaders of those countries.

But American presidents have also hosted friendly visits with leaders from undemocratic countries with questionable human rights records.

The question of how to deal with dictators remains central to American foreign policy, but factors such as a country's strategic importance or its oil wealth may blunt an urge to insist on democracy.

From military campaigns to trade deals and Oval Office meetings, here's a look at the spectrum of U.S. responses regarding authoritarian regimes.

Option 1: Military Overthrow

Acting with smaller coalition partners, the U.S. has resorted to this option three times since 2001.

The most recent action came last year in Libya, where a bombing campaign by the U.S. and its NATO allies helped oust the country's longtime leader, Moammar Gadhafi, who was subsequently killed by Libyans.

Given humanitarian concerns and a doctrine known as the "responsibility to protect" vulnerable citizens, there are often calls for the U.S. to use force against aggressive regimes.

The long entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan have offered sobering reminders about the limits of U.S. military power when it comes to establishing functional democracies, however.

Option 2: The Threat Of Force

As tension mounts over Iran's nuclear program, the U.S. has sought to discourage an Israeli attack, but it has also kept its options open and says it will not rule out the use of force.

President Obama has thus far preferred to target Iran through economic means. Sanctions imposed unilaterally by the U.S. and through international institutions have contributed to the sharp drop in the value of the Iranian currency in recent months.

Iran, in turn, has also warned that it might try to block the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.

All these factors have combined to drive up the world price of oil, and there's concern that the escalating rhetoric can lead to miscalculations that could result in conflict.

Option 3: Sanctions And Diplomacy

Obama routinely condemns Syrian President Bashar Assad and calls for him to leave after nearly a year of protests and worsening bloodshed. The U.S. president has resisted calls for U.S. military involvement, however, even at the level of arming the opposition forces.

"Assad must halt his campaign of killing and crimes against his own people now," Obama said Feb. 4. "He must step aside and allow a democratic transition to proceed immediately."

The United Nations Security Council, however, rejected a peace plan for Syria later that same day.

The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly last week in favor of a similar measure, but that vote was nonbinding. Beyond talk of further sanctions, there appears to be little appetite in the West for direct military intervention.

Option 4: Resetting Relations

The military rulers in Myanmar, also known as Burma, have been loosening their grip after a half-century in power, and the U.S. appears to be treating these moves as genuine. America is now willing to engage the country's leaders after shunning them for decades.

During a visit in December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. would ease restrictions on aid and take other steps to improve relations if the country continued to pursue democratic reforms.

Parliamentary elections are planned for April 1, and long-time opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi and her party have agreed to take part. As long as she supports the moves taken by the military rulers, the Americans appear likely to be supportive as well.

Option 5: Mutually Dependent Partners

The U.S.-China economic relationship is so important that most other issues, like China's lack of democracy and its human rights record, come in for only limited criticism.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, that country's likely next leader, received a warm welcome in Washington and around the country last week.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a GOP presidential hopeful, blasted Obama for having been a "near supplicant" to China.

"If the U.S. fails to support dissidents out of fear of offending the Chinese government, if we fail to speak out against the barbaric practices entailed by China's compulsory one-child policy, we will merely embolden China's leaders at the expense of greater liberty," Romney wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal.

Obama did bring up China's human-rights record in front of his guest, saying the country had a responsibility for "recognizing the aspirations and rights of all people."

But, given China's importance as a trading partner, Obama — like other recent presidents — chose to keep such criticisms mild.

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