The 1953 marriage between the United States and Iran was a classic love story of global affairs.
Democratic superpower meets royal descendant, a would-be shah. Shah overthrows democratic government with help of superpower. Superpower spends next 26 years helping shah sustain oppressive rule over his people.
The romance has been repeated elsewhere over the years as U.S. leaders have developed crushes on other dictators. So fickle, that United States.
Motivated by a passion for democracy, U.S. presidents have an unfortunate history of elevating autocrats to power. Iran, Iraq, the Dominican Republic, the country formerly known as Zaire—all have had some of their worst periods defined by U.S. involvement.
"Americans are not very interested in history,” said Piero Gleijeses, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University. “If you're not interested in history, you don't learn lessons from history."
U.S. history—20th-century in particular—is fraught with such lessons.
Take the Dominican Republic, where Rafael Trujillo and his supporters brutalized the people for three decades as the United States helped the regime thrive. U.S. support was based on Trujillo’s dedication to democracy—even though the dictator secured a suspiciously absurd 99 percent of the popular vote in 1930.
Democracy, yay! The United States’ support of questionable democracies has caused its share of problems, said Alastair Smith, a professor of politics at New York University and coauthor of The Dictator’s Handbook.
"This is what the United States president was elected to do,” he said. “We get the type of government we deserve."
Meanwhile, people in dictatorial countries are getting less than they deserve. In Iraq, for example, U.S. support of Saddam Hussein led to decades of human rights abuses against his people.
"You have to decide who you're going to support before you know which policies they're going to support,” Smith said. “I'm sure the U.S. wished it had never gotten involved in Iraq with Saddam."
And the United States’ romance with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had broad implications for Iran’s people before he was deposed in the 1979 revolution. Opposition was routinely suppressed by the country’s secret police, but the shah was beloved by U.S. leaders.
“Iran, because of the great leadership of the shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world,” President Jimmy Carter said at a 1977 state dinner.
"In some ways, they looked at him as the policeman of the Middle East," said Faraz Sanei, an Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Carter would come to regret that support, and it was his attention to the shah’s human rights abuses that helped pave the way for the Iranian Islamic revolution, Sanei said. Iranians—particularly those upset over the direction the country has taken since then—have not forgotten.
"Some people in my own family, when they see a picture of Jimmy Carter they grimace,” he said.
The formula and reasoning behind U.S. support of dictators is fairly simple, experts said.
Start with a relatively small country that has something you want—natural resources or access to U.S. military forces, for example. Then open the spigot and flood it with cash, weapons, or both.
This strategy works best in small countries because dictators only need to control a small number of elite people to keep control, Smith said. Before the first Persian Gulf war, for example, the United States failed to gain military access to Turkey because that country, essentially, had too many satisfied people, he said.
“The fewer supporters they have, the fewer people there are to compensate,” Smith said. “The U.S. determined they couldn't afford to buy Turkey."
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has worked out marvelously for the United States, which has quietly funneled aid to the monarchy for years.
"Every time we fail to hear about a place, it means policy has been bought successfully,” Smith said. “Saudi Arabia seems to be a real success story."
Of course, there’s nothing like a success story to point out hypocrisy. At the same time the United States has supported Saudi Arabia and its less-than-exemplary human rights record, it has maintained its embargo on Cuba, Gleijeses noted.
Let’s not forget the United States’ stubborn support of apartheid-era South Africa. Such examples will persist as long as Americans continue to be, well, dumb, he said.
"Most Americans don't have a clue,” Gleijeses said. “I've been a professor for 40 years, and I'm still struck by the ignorance of my students."
We’re not alone in our ignorance. Other developed nations have wooed dictators over the years, including the United Kingdom, which helped the United States bring the shah to power in Iran.
Other European nations, such as the French in Algeria and the Dutch in Indonesia, have had a hand in human rights debacles.
"God knows how many crimes the French have perpetrated in the name of civilization,” Gleijeses said. “It's not like we're competing with great paragons of virtue."