Most advocates of aiding Ukraine in its fight against Russia do not merely contend that the move is justified to repel an act of aggression that threatens to legitimize wars of conquest. Instead, they portray Ukraine as a freedom-loving democracy and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a heroic democratic champion, who deserves even more U.S. military and financial assistance than he has already received.
The political and media love-fest accompanying Zelensky’s address to a joint session of Congress in late December 2022 was a prime example of such hero worship. David Frum, writing in the Atlantic, asserted that Zelensky "recalled us to ourselves" and our democratic values. Frum added that the Ukrainian president "came to the United States to thank us for supporting Ukraine. It is Americans who should thank him." Others evaluated his congressional appearance in equally glowing terms.
Such fawning ignores Zelensky’s increasingly brazen violations of civil liberties and democratic norms. However, this is hardly the first time that US officials and the American news media have falsely portrayed one of Washington’s authoritarian clients as a committed democrat. The lengthy roster includes Nationalist China’s Chiang Kai-shek, South Vietnamese presidents Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Van Thieu, Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, and Afghanistan’s presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani.
Perhaps the closest model for the blind support American admirers are currently according Zelensky, though, was the attitude that Americans (especially conservatives) displayed toward Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. Between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s (especially throughout Ronald Reagan’s administration), numerous political and media figures advocated greater US support for Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and its insurgency against Angola’s leftist government. In the process, they overlooked or concealed their "democratic" client’s massive flaws.
Presenting Savimbi with an award from the American Conservative Union and the Young Americans for Freedom, US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick lauded him as "one of the few authentic heroes of our time." Kirkpatrick’s idealized portrait of Savimbi was typical of the conservative perspective in the United States. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) stated that "I have had the privilege of meeting Mr. Savimbi and have been extremely impressed by his honesty, integrity, religious commitment." The conflict in Angola was, Hatch insisted, "a battle over ideologies: Soviet totalitarianism vs. freedom, self-determination, and democracy." US aid to Savimbi would "send a strong signal to the world that we are determined to help freedom fighters" prevail. The dominant message from both the news media and the foreign policy blob today about the supposed imperative to support Zelensky and "democratic Ukraine" is eerily similar.
Zelensky also has replicated Savimbi’s ability to tell US political elites and the American people exactly what he knew they want to hear. Savimbi’s impressive skill at doing so was highlighted by a 1986 op-ed under his byline in the Wall Street Journal, in which he hailed the virtues of capitalism and democracy and pledged to make Angola a model of both values, if the United States helped UNITA oust the pro-communist government. His 1989 lecture to the Heritage Foundation presented a similar message to a highly receptive audience. UNITA’s ultimate goal, Savimbi insisted on both occasions, was to build a new, multi-party democracy, which also would place great importance on economic as well as political liberties.
Despite the Savimbi camp’s propaganda, UNITA did not practice any of those political or economic principles in the portion of Angola that it controlled. Democracy, multiparty or otherwise, did not exist; UNITA maintained a ruthless monopoly of power. Abuses included the systematic imprisoning or killing of political opponents or potential leadership competitors. Even some of Savimbi’s American supporters grudgingly admitted that UNITA also resorted to torture and coercive "re-education" measures.
Zelensky’s attempt to portray his cause as the defense of freedom and democracy is equally bold and disingenuous. In his address to Congress, he stated that Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion "is not only for the territory, for this or another part of Europe. The battle is not only for life, freedom and security of Ukrainians or any other nation which Russia attempts to conquer. This struggle will define in what world our children and grandchildren will live, and then their children and grandchildren. It will define whether it will be a democracy [for] Ukrainians and for Americans — for all. "
However, the gap between his rhetoric and the political reality in Ukraine is massive. The Ukraine government’s repression is becoming increasingly flagrant and alarming. Measures include closing opposition media outlets, banning opposition parties, and jailing individuals without even a semblance of due process. Zelensky has no tolerance for even the most peaceful dissent, domestic or foreign – as shown when his government’s Center for Countering Disinformation published a "blacklist" of critics, including numerous prominent Americans. The CCD’s ugly authoritarian mentality became apparent when it smeared individuals on the list as "disinformation terrorists" and "war criminals." Just as Savimbi did not really practice what he preached, Zelensky’s policies are decidedly not democratic.
One key difference between the naïve support of Americans for Savimbi and the equally naive support for Zelensky is that the earlier episode was rather partisan. Conservatives were much more inclined than their liberal counterparts to back Savimbi. The current willingness to ignore Zelensky’s obvious abuses and continue portraying him as a champion of democracy is worse, since it is staunchly bipartisan. By the early 1990s, the evidence of Savimbi’s real nature was indisputable, and his embarrassed American supporters became very quiet. One wonders how long it will take Zelensky’s fans to accept reality and at least implicitly acknowledge that they have made a similar blunder.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).