The Iranian crisis won't disappear when the fate of the hostages is finally settled. Recriminations will start bubbling to the surface of the American political landscape.
The question to be answered goes deeper than our humiliation in Tehran, serious as that has been. It goes to the heart of U.S. foreign policy: what is to blame for the hatred and ridicule that have been heaped on this country in recent years, and what can be done to reverse the situation? In a way, it's unfortunate that this issue will be discussed in the overblown rhetoric of an election year, because it is one that deserves more dispassionate consideration.
The Iranian crisis is only the latest, and most dramatic, evidence of the enmity the United States has aroused by its support of repressive dictators in the name of anti-communism. In Nicaragua, a Tehran-style backlash was prevented only because the revolutionaries who ousted the U.S.-backed Anastasio Somoza were less fanatical than the mullah in Iran. In Cambodia, revenge for our support of the corrupt Lon Nol was avoided because thee were no Americans left to terrorize. In South America and Africa, we continue to prop up the regimes of generals who beat their countrymen with one hand and rob them with the other.
If it is not already too late, a change in U.S. policy toward these repressive regimes might spare us future Tehrans -- and Islamabads and Tripolis -- when the inevitable revolutionaries throw the rascals out.
As a basically decent man who inherited years of locked-in-concrete alliances, Jimmy Carter has reaped the whirlwind sown by his predecessors. After two years of kowtowing to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, for example, he was finally persuaded that the shah's fate was sealed, and played a crucial role in his final exit.
But it was too little and too late. The revolutionaries who ousted the shah remembered only the decades of U.S. support for the tyrant, not Carter's pressure on him to moderate his rule. And to our client dictators, who have been trading on their anti-communism for billions in U.S. aid over the years, Carter's abandonment of the shah was seen as simple treachery to an old ally.
The intelligence community's role in America's current no-win predicament is certainly worth looking into. Did our intelligence-gathering agencies send honest, accurate information to Washington, where it was distorted at the top levels to conform to political policies already established? Or did the experts at the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department censor their own reports to tell the policy-makers what they wanted to hear?
For years I had reported that the shah was unpopular with the Iranian masses and quite likely to be deposed by popular revolution. This information was reported by U.S. intelligence, which considered the shah an unstable megalomaniac. But it was apparently ignored in favor of more optimistic assessments.
Only two months before the shah's collapse, carters' national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, telephoned the Iranian dictator and assured him that the United States was behind him 100 percent. In a matter of weeks, the reality of the shah's collapsing situation finally sank in, and Carter withdrew his pledge of support, after the shah had refused to liberalize his rule.
In Cambodia, knee-jerk anti-communism saddled the United States with another corrupt, unpopular dictator, Lon Nol. When this pathetic bumbler was thrown out by the savage Pol Pot regime, which was in turn overthrown by Vietnamese-backed communists, the United States had no place to go. The result was the shameful U.S. vote in the United Nations to recognize the government of Pol Pot, although he had butchered half the population of Cambodia.
In Nicaragua, only when it became obvious that Anastasio Somoza-whose corrupt 40 years of family rule was made possible by U.S. backing-was losing out to a popular revolt, did the United States give up-after an attempt to rob the rebels of victory by back-door maneuvering.
Our apparently incurable fondness for dictators-who need only to spout a convincing anti-communist line and assure us of their stability-may get us in more trouble before too long. In Argentina and Chile, we continue to back repressive military regimes to protect U.S. business interests. And in Zaire, another enjoys American support, President Mobutu Sese Seko, is reportedly heading toward a Somoza-style debacle. He has enriched himself while his people starved and imprisoned any who dared criticize his dictatorship. But he jovially wines and dines U.S. officials and businessmen.
"Mobutu's an s.o.b.," he explained, "but the powers-that-be say, as always, that he's our s.o.b. I'm sure he's not going to be around much longer . . . the people of Zaire will blame the United States for supporting him."
Those who will not learn from history are doomed to relive it. It's time U.S. policymakers read a little of our recent history so we won't be doomed to repeat it endlessly.