The Despotic Temptation

MADRID – US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, when asked about American support for the notorious Nicaraguan despot Anastasio Somoza, purportedly replied, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Whether or not the quip is apocryphal, it sums up a longstanding Western approach to much of the world – and one that underpinned US foreign policy throughout the Cold War.

But lately an even more troubling sentiment seems to have emerged, with Western leaders willing to settle not for “our son of a bitch,” but for just about any son of a bitch who can impose stability, whatever the cost. It is an alluring but dangerous mindset.

Experience should have pushed Western leaders in the opposite direction. After all, as time passed, the ostensibly pragmatic clientelism of the Cold War proved far from ideal. Indeed, in many cases – the Shah of Iran, Cambodia’s Lon Nol, Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, to name a few – it led to long-term insecurity and disorder.

But these are desperate times. Unable to contain the violence, suffering, and chaos engulfing the Middle East and North Africa – the consequences of which are increasingly being felt in Europe – Western leaders are falling back into the Cold War trap. All they want is for someone – and now virtually anyone – to enforce order.