Adam Elkus makes a questionable claim about U.S. dealings with dictatorships in an article on the “trust gap” between the U.S. and China:
It’s certainly true that American policymakers have done business with their fair share of dictators to further U.S. strategic interests, but Washington can’t be seen by the American people as doing so for the same reasons Beijing props up authoritarian regimes [bold mine-DL]. Accordingly, U.S. officials often portray their clients as aspiring democrats and benign modernizers to domestic audiences, and sometimes are forced by political pressure to abandon particularly unsavory figures altogether.
This doesn’t seem to be true. Sometimes the government will pretend that semi-authoritarian leaders are aspiring democrats, as it does with Saakashvili, but it’s relatively rare for the U.S. to pretend that our thoroughly authoritarian and monarchical clients are anything other than what they are. It’s not as if it would fool anyone who knows better, and it wouldn’t matter to the people who don’t pay enough attention to know that it isn’t true. The U.S. may not go as far out of its way to shield an authoritarian client diplomatically as China or Russia would, but our clients rarely face the same kind of organized international pressure, and one major reason for this is that they are our clients. Besides, authoritarian major powers have little incentive to draw attention to authoritarian regimes’ abuses. The U.S. doesn’t have to defend its authoritarian clients at the U.N., because their abuses and crackdowns are rarely brought up there.
The Bahraini ruling family might have been liberalizing by the standards of Gulf monarchies before last year, but that isn’t saying much, and especially after last year’s crackdown there doesn’t seem to be much of an official effort to portray the Bahraini government as something other than an absolute monarchy. As far as I know, the government doesn’t try to maintain the fiction that Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan or Aliyev in Azerbaijan are modernizing democrats-in-waiting. If people are paying attention to the U.S. relationship with Uganda, they can’t have any illusions that Museveni is a “benign modernizer.” And then there are the Saudis. I could go on, but you get the idea.
The U.S. and China support some of their respective clients for some of the same reasons (e.g., access to energy, economic opportunities). China has an additional interest in blocking outside interference in the internal affairs of other states, and the U.S. is often interested in acquiring authoritarian regimes’ security cooperation. On the whole, most Americans don’t care about U.S. diplomatic and military support for these regimes, except when it comes to foreign aid. Because there is a popular misunderstanding of how much the U.S. spends on foreign aid, there is significant popular opposition to it here at home. Even so, this is driven by the perceived waste and excess of the spending, and it is informed by the idea the money is being spent on nations that loathe America.
It is also very rare for the U.S. to be “forced by political pressure” to abandon foreign clients. There have been recent occasions when a particular client was forced out by political pressure inside his own country, and the U.S. then acquiesced to the outcome, but that is a bit different. Who would be bringing this pressure to bear on the government? The intervention in Libya might be an example of such an abandonment, but it was not domestic political pressure that pushed the administration into attacking Gaddafi.