Why US government backs autocrats and despots

Barack Obama

Former US President Barack Obama. The first volume of A Promised Land is a must-read for a person who keenly follows American politics and global contemporary history. The memoir is Obama’s personal account of the events that shaped his political career.

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That the US interferes in other nations' internal affairs, when it benefits them, is not news.

John Perkins, the author of Confessions Of An Economic Hitman, makes several revelations on this. But when the story is told by a president, it touches a raw nerve. You want to read it.

Barack Hussein Obama is an exceptional storyteller. Dreams From My Father, which details his roots, from Hawaii, where he grew up with his mother to Kogello, Alego, in Kenya, the home of his late father, Dr Barack Hussein Obama, and his personal and intellectual reflections in Audacity of Hope, are not proof enough of this phenomenal talent.

The first volume of A Promised Land is a must-read for a person who keenly follows American politics and global contemporary history. The memoir is Obama’s personal account of the events that shaped his political career from Harvard to the Illinois State Legislature and finally in Washington, first as a Senator and then the most powerful seat on earth. Full of anecdotes and detailed personal interactions with senior staff and members of the federal government, Obama lays bare the intricacies of foreign policy in various parts of the world, how the White House clashed with Pentagon on the deployment of forces to Iraq and Afghanistan, forcing one of the generals to step aside, his disagreements with senior staff and how he told off his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, on the matter of Hosni Mubarak’s (mis)handling of Egypt’s pro-democracy demonstrators at Tahrir Square, which led to his stepping down.

He writes about his successes with the economy, which he inherited in a mess, repercussions and personal loss of the Democratic Party in the midterm elections of his first term. He gives a graphic detail of how Navy SEAL snipers saved the American crew of a liner off the Somali coastline and the watershed moment of his presidency, taking out Osama Bin Laden deep inside Pakistan, again with the professional precision of Navy SEAL agents. 

He exposes how the CIA, the world’s most feared secret service agency, slept on the job under the influence of Ayatollah Khomeini. But it is this small matter of admitting to interfering in other nations’ internal affairs that raises quite some eyebrows. Relating America’s volatile actions in the Middle East, and with specific reference to Iran, Obama recalls how the “British convinced the Eisenhower administration that the new Iranian government was tilting toward the Soviets, leading Eisenhower to green-light Operation Ajax, a CIA-M16-engineered coup that deposed Iran’s democratically-elected prime minister and consolidated power in the hands of the country’s young monarch, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. 

“Operation Ajax set a pattern for US miscalculation in dealing with developing countries that lasted throughout the Cold War: mistaking nationalist aspirations for Communist plots; equating commercial interests with national security; subverting democratically-elected governments and aligning ourselves with autocrats when we determined it was to our benefit,” writes Obama.

For 27 years, Obama writes, things worked well for Iran and US policymakers, extending contracts to US oil companies and buying plenty of expensive American weaponry. He (Shah) maintained friendly relations with Israel, gave women the right to vote, modernised the education system and mingled easily with European royalty. “But a simmering discontent with the Shah’s extravagant spending, ruthless repression and promotion of western social mores that in the eyes of conservative clerics and their many followers, violated the core tenets of Islam.

“Nor did CIA analysts pay much attention to the growing influence of an exiled messianic Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, whose writings and speeches denounced the shah as a western puppet and called on the faithful to replace the existing order with an Islamic state governed by Shariah law.”

He recalls how US officials were caught by surprise when a series of demonstrations inside Iran at the start of 1978 blossomed into a full-blown populist revolution.

The issue (of getting into other nations’ spheres) also emerges during the Arab Spring, a wave of pro-democracy demonstrations that swept through the Arab world and forced out the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. For at least half a century, he says, US policy in the Middle East “had focused narrowly on maintaining stability, preventing disruptions to our oil supplies and keeping adversarial powers (first Soviets, then the Iranians) from expanding their influence. After 9/11, counterterrorism took centre stage.

“In pursuing these goals, we’d made autocrats our allies. Across the US government, the possibility that some sort of populist uprising might bring down one of our allies had historically been met with resignation: sure, it was likely to happen, the same way a bad hurricane will hit the Gulf Coast or the Big One will hit California; but since we couldn’t say exactly where or when, and since we did not have the means to stop it anyway, the best thing to do was prepare contingency plans and get ready to manage the aftershocks."

On Hosni Mubarak, Obama says: “I might not be able to stop China or Russia from crushing its own dissidents. But the Mubarak regime has received billions of US taxpayer dollars; we supplied them with weapons, shared information, and helped train their military officers; and for me to allow the recipient of that aid, someone we called an ally, to perpetrate wanton violence on peaceful demonstrators, with all the world watching – that was a line I was unwilling to cross, it would do too much damage to the idea of America.

We are calling on Mubarak to step down now. Around the same time, Hillary Clinton was interviewed at a security conference in Munich and seemed to go out of her way to warn of the dangers in any rapid transition in Egypt. "I told Katie to track down my secretary of state. When I got her on the phone, I didn’t mask my displeasure. 'I understand full well the potential problems with any move away from Mubarak,' I said, 'but I’ve made a decision, and I can’t have a bunch of mixed messages out there right now.” A Promised Land is a book that will interest people across the board, young and old, black, brown or white, radicals and progressives.


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