Friday, January 28, 2011

Looking at the situation at Egypt is rather reminiscent of the way America handled Korea. The U.S. is reluctant to do anything too radical with Egyptian president/dictator Hosni Mubarak, because he is an important ally in a war against terror. (Apparently Joe Biden does not consider Mubarak to be a dictator, although it is hard to figure out what else to call a leader who has been ruling for 30 years in a supposedly democratic country.) Similarly, in the name of preventing the spread of communism, U.S. tolerated a series of dictators in Korea all the way from its independence to late 1980s/early 1990s. In fact, nearly all anti-American sentiment in Korea today can be more or less traced to this fact.

The Korean does not know what is the right thing to do here. But he hopes that Barack Obama knows enough history to understand the future implications of American tolerance of autocrats.


  1. Well, they're only a dictator if they aren't friendly with America. And, we take out diplomatically elected leaders like Salvador Allende in Chile because we think they might be against our cause... whatever that is at the moment.

  2. Unfortunately the world cannot be so black and white. What if the US didn't support those Korean dictators and the North was able to invade a weak South? How would Koreans think of Americans then?
    With America, it is always damned if it does and damned if it doesn't, there is never a clear winning solution.

  3. Perhaps a more fitting example would be Iran, where the US supported the autocratic Shah for decades before the collapse of that regime. Like Egypt, we provided Iran with tremendous aid, economic investment, and even the latest in US military hardware (which is why Iran is the last nation to fly the F-14 Tomcat). It's a pretty complex picture too with accusations on one side saying that the US shouldn't have supported him or the coup that put him in power to begin with while others say that Carter's distancing himself from the regime made it vulnerable to overthrow.

  4. @ Scott:

    Ahh, the "US as the tortured hero" complex. America's version of Korean "victimization" complex, if you will.

    Look the fact is, American hegemony, like Western hegemony in general, has been 100% self-serving and 80% very negative. Ever wonder how Americans learn of the evils of Ayatolla and Castro...but never of the brutal US-supported dictatorships that came immediately before them? Sheesh.

    However, that remaining 20% of Western hegemonic legacy is positive. This, however, is not through some "pro-freedom" hero bullshit of America's global role, but rather through pure coincidence: namely, Japan, the 4 Asian tigers, and Israel (at least from the Jewish perspective) have benefitted from Western interventionism and hegemony, and understandably are thankful of that legacy.

    That remaining 80% however...well...

  5. @ cornflakes
    Every country on Earth has its own best interests in mind. It is not just a "Western" thing.
    80%? 20%? Making up numbers does not help anything either.

  6. I know that every nation works for its benefit.

    However, what is the benefit for supporting dictators in Middle West?

    More precisely, whose benefit? Supporting authortive regime is not for the benefit for your American citizen, it is just for ...

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Sorry about all the typos earlier.

    @ cornflakes
    It's totally wrong to say that those countries positive outcomes were purely coincidental. You totally discount The Marshal Plan which got Japan and Germany back on their feet. Americas then fervent desire to keep communism and later radical Islam in check got America to cover many countries defensive costs. And we all know that Americas open markets allowed export oriented countries to get rich. I think it's more accurate to say that the countries that benefited from American hegemony are the ones that got their houses in order and got in the game.

    Every country on Earth has its own best interests in mind. It is not just a "Western" thing.

    True, but not every country holds itself up as the center of freedom and democracy in the world. You can't wag a finder at other peoples transgressions and then suddenly act no better then everyone else when it suites your needs. People will scream hypocrisy.

    *cough* Suez Canal *cough*
    *cough* Israel *cough*
    But yeah I wouldn't trade places with Obama for anything right now.

  9. I think that part of the problem is that, with Mubarak, the US knows it has an ally within Egypt. If revolutionaries take over, it isn't so certain, and that's why Obama's in a precarious position right now (or one reason, anyway).

  10. Unfortunately the world cannot be so black and white. What if the US didn't support those Korean dictators and the North was able to invade a weak South? How would Koreans think of Americans then?
    With America, it is always damned if it does and damned if it doesn't, there is never a clear winning solution.

    I think Koreans should be grateful for American aid in the past and in the present, but they should be justifiably angry at American support for Korean military dictatorships. As you said, the world isn't so black and white.

    I don't see why a democratic South Korea in 1979 or 1973 or 1961 would have fallen to North Korea. What has kept South Korea safe all this time has been the American military presence. If democracy was going to create a downhill expressway from Pyongyang to Seoul, it would've happened in 1987 or in 1992 once they turned things over to Kim Young-sam.

    Consider the timeline from Gwangju 1980.

    1) Universities are closed as part of martial law.
    2) Students in Gwangju protest. Soldiers respond.
    3) Crowds (really militias) swell and use force against soldiers, who retreated outside of the city.
    4) Gwangju is blockaded and under a communications blackout.
    5) Reinforcements arrive from Seoul and make quick work of the militias.

    America's role in the Gwangju massacre is debatable, but America not only exerted a great deal of influence in the situation, it had troops in the country!

    If America gets credit for protecting South Korea from the North, surely it must also receive blame for allowing this to happen in plain sight?

  11. 1) South Korea is a Korean AND American success story. Democracy is strong in South Korea b/c the people there earned it, and America smartly stepped aside (finally). Eventually there will be "One Free Korea" w/ the DPRK being folded into the ROK. Thank you AAK for being not being anti-American and being thankful for where Korea is today and will hopefully be in the future.

    2) Don't forget the other success stories of Germany, Japan, Taiwan, Chile and Israel.

    3) Let us hope that the Egyptian Army prevails instead of the Muslim Brotherhood.

  12. @Robert Lim
    I dunno if I'd call Taiwan a success story, considering that the GuoMinDang, which the US was backing to rule all of China, was basically kicked off the continent and onto an island. But, then again, they are a successful free Democracy today. Guess it's somewhat of a silver lining?

    Anyway, at least more leaders are calling for Mubarak to not use violence. Seems somewhat like an empty gesture, though, as there's still a rising death toll, and the revolutionaries arn't planning on stopping till Mubarak is gone, it seems.

  13. @Scott

    South Korean dictators were not installed by the U.S. but by themselves. I see no reason why the U.S. could not have exerted its influence or at least criticized the Korean government at the time of the Gwangju massacre, but non-interference was on the whole a good policy. And there was a real threat from the North.

    The U.S. role in Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere is far different. Dictatorships were not simply tolerated under U.S. stewardship: the U.S. often overthrew democratic governments and/or installed dictatorships and not because of any military threat but out of naked economic self-interest. The Shah in Iran is one example, and, of course, Saddam Hussein is another.

  14. I think the next government in Egypt (no matter that it is Islamatic extremists or liberal) could be a good alley of US if US choose a wise policy.

    Although China did not give up their communist ruling, China is not a hostle enemy of US any more.

    The military authorities in Korea always blamed the democratic movement as communist's revolt, and it seems that US government had bought that bullshit.

    I do not know the referred islamic (something) breadren is extremists or not, personally I think that western media just bought the Mubarak's bullshit; even though they are extremists, whether they will antagonise US or Israel is totally different story.

    Also I think when the revolution in Iran occurred in 1979, Iran could be a good friend of US, instead, US chose to be enemy of Iran in a sense.

  15. Maybe people would like to think the US is idealistically the center of the democratic world, but realistically stability is very important. There is always that interplay going on. But one fear is that a thing could spark a regional war, and even possibly into a World War.

  16. Poor Americans. I used to blame them for everything, too. But it seems they're pretty much damned if they do, and damned if they don't.

    They've got their problems. It's always with a bit of relief that I tell people I'm not American. But after all, maybe they're an easy target because they stick their necks out and do something...

  17. While I understand a lot of the anger that people in Korea feel over the U.S. government's support of the military regime (and, in particular, the suppression of the demonstrations in Gwangju), I'm not sure what I would have done differently had I been in the shoes of the policymakers at that time. For one thing, there was the domestic political context. 1980 was an election year, and the Carter administration was already taking on water because of its handling of the Iran hostage crisis. Politically, there was no way that they could have come out in public and chastised another important ally.

    Furthermore, you have to bear in mind that the South Korean military regime still had quite a bit of public support at that time. (After all, when they finally DID have democratic elections, Chun Doo-hwan's handpicked successor won. Sure, the opposition split the vote, but it still shows that there was a considerable base of support for the military regime.) Even today, South Korea is very polarized along regional and ideological lines, perhaps even moreso than the U.S. (This is pretty amazing, given how small the country is.) Just from perusing English language message board discussions about Gwangju, I get the impression that there are quite a few Koreans who wish the army would have kept shooting long after they stopped.

    Given this, it's understandable that the U.S. was pretty concerned about a large scale insurrection or even civil war breaking out in the South, which the North probably WOULD have tried to exploit. (The North and South were still pretty much at economic and military parity at this time, too.) As tens of thousands of American troops would have been on the frontlines of this conflict, preventing such an eventuality was pretty much priority A, B, and C for American policymakers.

    Again, I'm not saying that the U.S. covered itself in glory with it's Korea policy in the 1980s. However, the policy was pretty defensible along realpolitik grounds. Indeed, one can argue U.S. policy towards South Korea has been one of the more successful applications of realpolitik. The U.S./South Korea partnership has remained strong, even in light of all the political and economic changes that have occurred in both countries over the past thirty years. As for anti-Americanism in Korea, it's out there, but I find that the typical Korean usually has a much more balanced and nuanced opinion of the United States than does your typical fresh-out-of-college Canadian or Kiwi.

    Of course, if Korea is an example of realpolitik working, then Egypt (and really the entire Middle East) is an example of it failing. It seems like these protests are bound to lead to a government that is much less friendly to the U.S. Unlike the Korean military regime, the Mubarak government has presided over a social and economic stagnation. Indeed, one of the problems in American foreign policy is the tendency to use a small variety of intellectual frameworks (like realpolitik) to deal with a vast variety of problems. Thus, even if our policy towards Korea has been a relative success, that framework probably isn't applicable to other countries.

  18. True, America is not blameless in its support of strong mans. But it seems like a dictator is the only viable option in a weak country? Look at what's happening in Iraq after Saddam!

    You think China is looking VERY CLOSELY to this so they won't have their own Internet fueled riots???

  19. I don't buy into the "damned if you do damned if you don't" argument. We have in many instances propped up leaders of countries who are in effect dictators when it serves our foreign policy interests. We do it all the time, South Korea being one example, I'd say the Philippines being another, and now Egypt. When the native people revolt against these dictators, every time the US is caught with it's pants down because we know ideologically these dictators do not adhere to our ideas of democratic rule, but on the other hand, we enjoy having someone who continues to be our pals in regions that we have strategic interests in. I think it's about time we really stop meddling in the affairs of weaker countries governance and focus more on better handling our own domestic affairs.

  20. Wow. We totally had this exact discussion in my Korean Politics class on Tuesday...


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