Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Strange Bedfellows in US Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in June 2009. Today, Egyptians are protesting to remove Mubarak from power. Photo via the San Francisco Sentinel

At one point, the United States, a beacon of democracy and freedom, turned to a despotic, autocratic tyrant for friendship and alliance during a volatile period.

As soon as the situation was resolved, however, that very same despotic regime caused mixed feelings among Americans, often leading to violent confrontation.

By the way, I’m not talking about Egypt.

It was 1778, and a young United States turned to France, an absolute monarchy almost completely anathema to the ideals of the young nation, as an ally in its war for independence against the British Empire.

When that very same regime became engulfed in revolution a decade later, the new regime divided Americans as never before—and confused US foreign policy into a “quasi-war” with France from 1798-1800.

The recent turmoil in Egypt has us looking at the often strange decisions made in the name of national interest.  In looking at the protests aimed to oust Hosni Mubarak, many classrooms will be full of questions about the situation.  They range from the mundane (“Where is Egypt?”) to the profound (“How can we resolve the situation?”) and even the profoundly dumb (“Who cares about Egypt?”).

Yet one question cannot be avoided: “Why are we friends with a guy like Mubarak in the first place?”

It’s time to teach your kids the painful truth about American diplomacy—it makes for strange bedfellows who tend to stay too long in the sack.

It doesn’t stop at Mubarak and the corpulent king of France.  Josef Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong (once he was dying), the folks in China after Mao kicked the bucket, Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, the entire Thai government, Ngo Dinh Diem, Syngman Rhee, the assholes after Syngman Rhee, Islam Karimov, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Saddam Hussein (before he got greedy),The Saudi Monarchy, The monarchies of the rest of the Gulf states, Mobutu Sese Seko, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the white regimes in both Rhodesia and South Africa, Rafael Trujillo, Fulgencio Batista, Anastasio Somoza (plus the other Somozas), Manuel Noriega (before he got greedy), Marcos Perez Jimenez, Augusto Pinochet, Hugo Banzer, Alfredo Stroessner and the host of lovable scamps involved in military governments in Brazil and Argentina.

All of these people rotting in hell (we hope).  All of these people received, at one point or another, the blessing, cooperation, and (the important part) funding from the most powerful democracy on Earth.

We were often taught that the United States was “special” amongst its brethren nations in that its high moral purpose and philosophical vision would mean its actions would also be of such moral stature.  The US wouldn’t stoop to make treaties with dictatorships, nor “torture” prisoners for information: Americans “just don’t do that sort of thing.”

Well, not only do we do “that sort of thing,” but we’re real good at it—since we’ve been doing it since our founding.

Foreign relations, one learns quickly, has very little to do with lofty philosophical ideals or moral imperatives.  To be sure, the base of diplomacy lies more in the market bazaar than the debating hall: economics and mutual security drive national ties far more than shared ideology.

Today’s diplomatic landscape certainly owes much to our wallets.  In the United States, most people worry about gas and consumer prices. Thus, we make nice with two nasty regimes that take care of our needs. The Saudis and their autocratic buddies in the Gulf take care to juice up our SUVs and assorted land monsters.  The Chinese and their sundry client states around the South China Sea make sure your little brats get everything they want for Christmas—as well as stock your shelves at Wal-Mart and Target.

During the Cold War, the United States’ biggest diplomatic priorities were thwarting Communism and spreading American ideals—in that order.  To wit, many of the people we cozied up to from the 1940s to the 1990s shared only an intense anti-Communist streak.  Being that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the US looked the other way as dissidents were slaughtered in soccer stadiums, tortured with electrodes, and subjected to inhuman conditions while everything, at least on the surface, looked rosy.

As far as Egypt goes, the mutual enemy isn’t Communism but rather Islamic fundamentalism.  The Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal Islamist group that allegedly masterminded the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 (leading to Mubarak’s accession), is the great bogeyman of the Egyptian government.  Mubarak fears that his departure would cede Egypt to the Brotherhood, thus plunging the ancient country into the darkness of an Islamic state.  I’m not completely convinced this is the case, considering the impact of the military on the country, but it’s been reason enough for the United States to stand by Mubarak for three decades.

The United States is not alone in allying itself with distasteful regimes.  Other countries, notably in Europe, have done the same thing. To an extent, these connections provide the United States with many of the products, materials and resources we need at the prices we want.  The average American has, on the whole, benefitted at least economically from these questionable partnerships.

Yet as you think about the people risking their lives in Cairo, Alexandria and all over Egypt, one can’t help wondering: is it worth it?

There’s no easy answer to that.  We cannot judge all foreign policy as a whole: relations with each country have their own characteristics.  Yet the better students can see how all aspects of national identity—economic, military, financial and ethical—affect international relations, all the better for the American diplomats of the future.

The following are some resources about US foreign policy with dictators as well as about the Egypt crisis:

An article from Salon.com featuring three authoritarian regimes that are friendly with the US.

A Report about US policy towards dictatorships from the Cato Institute made during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s.

A 2002 Global Issues article about support for dicatorships and terrorism.

YouTube compilations of news coverage of the Egyptian protests.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Website for the Classroom: History Animated

Battle of Chickamauga

Image via Wikipedia

I’m still in the process of finding that perfect computer game that can simulate the battle experience best for my students.  In the meantime, I will be using what is fast becoming one of my favorite websites.

History Animated has been in heavy rotation in my lesson plans for the past two years.  Every time I use it, students say two things: (1) Wow!, and (2) Can you burn me a copy, Mr. D?  Few interactive experiences give as much information–and provide such a chance to be an armchair general–as the interactive battle maps from the folks at this site.

Part of what makes History Animated so fun is that its founder has, on the surface, little to do with history.  James Cagney (from what I can tell, no relation to the actor) was a former tech exec who now teaches Computer Science at Central Oregon Community College.  According to Cagney, as he was reading books about various wars and seeing only “complicated maps with dotted lines and dashed lines crisscrossing the pages,” he decided to use computer animation to make the maps real.

So far, Jim and his team have created animated maps for the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the US Civil War, and World War II, both in Europe and the Pacific (he correctly denotes the Pacific Theater as a separate war, as do most historians and political scientists).  In each, the dashes, lines, thrust arrows, etc. of a conventional battle map come alive through detailed computer animations using various resources.  With each animation, there are also loads of information about the generals, organization of the army, weapons, and background on the wars themselves.  They even provide bibliographies for further reading on each particular battle.

To an extent, History Animated takes a real effort to provide accurate animations, often clocked to the hour.  Now, in WWII, this seems more of a possibility.  With earlier conflicts, this could become more like guesswork.  Yet the team at History Animated have really done their homework, using all available sources to provide the best picture possible.

However, if you’re looking for realistic pictures of combat, then look elsewhere.  This is the main reason why I use this so often: it provides a safe, non-graphic method of analyzing an often gruesome subject.  The sounds of marching, gunfire, horses and trains magnify the movements of the rectangular units on the map.  That’s it.  That’s the extent of the violence.  In a way, it gives a student the rare perspective of conducting war from a general’s standpoint.

One way I like to use this is to let my students be the general.  For example, I will show the animation of a particular battle, say, Shiloh in 1862.  I would then stop the animation at a certain point and then pass out papers with screen captures of the point in the battle they are looking at.  In teams–half of them are Union, half Confederate–I ask each group to plan the next move for their side.  What seems very easy will often get complicated when considering escape routes, timing, weather, terrain, location of reinforcements, etc.

All the animations are online: you can get the CDs of them for your hard drive for a small donation.  Even if you’re not a teacher, nor a history buff, History Animated offers an interesting way to view the great conflicts of history.

Visit often, since they update their selections periodically.  Tell them Mr. D sent you.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized