All signs indicated that Prime Minister Imran Khan was the most popular political leader in Pakistan. Yet the country’s military worked behind the scenes to remove him from power through a cash-lubricated parliamentary vote. Subsequently, he was sentenced to 3 years in prison and a 5-year ban on involvement in politics for alleged misuse of campaign contributions. That outcome is ironic. Veteran diplomat Craig Murray contends that “Imran Khan is almost certainly the least corrupt senior politician in Pakistan’s history.” And given the long-standing, massive corruption in that country, he likely is correct.
Murray also notes the emergence of “a vicious campaign of violence and imprisonment against Khan and his supporters. It is currently illegal in Pakistan to publish or broadcast about Khan or the thousands of new political prisoners incarcerated in appalling conditions.” Yet there have been no protests from the U.S. government. Despite its self-proclaimed status as the champion of global democracy, the United States notably has failed to condemn this triumph of autocracy. Indeed, critics contend that angry Biden administration officials had encouraged Pakistani military leaders to take action. The administration certainly did not seem even slightly displeased with the outcome.
That would not be a surprising stance. For decades, U.S. leaders have routinely preferred foreign autocrats who were eager to implement Washington’s policy agenda instead of uncooperative (or even unpredictable) democrats. The Pakistani maverick would be merely the latest victim who paid the price for getting crosswise with the imperial juggernaut.
From Washington’s standpoint, Khan committed two unforgivable offenses. In August 2021, he not only congratulated Taliban forces on their victory over the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan, but he stated that they had broken “the chains of slavery” imposed by Western imperialism and cultural domination. For U.S. leaders who proclaimed that the two-decade long counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban was part of the global “War on Terror,” such apostasy by a U.S. treaty ally would have been considered an infuriating betrayal.
More recently, Khan emphatically refused to cooperate with the efforts of the United States and NATO to impose economic sanctions on Russia. The Intercept now reports that 2 U.S. State Department officials then urged Khan’s political and military opponents to remove him from office. That report was based on a leaked classified cable. Given the extent of Washington’s economic and military aid to Pakistan, such a “request” could not easily be ignored.
Washington’s lengthy track record with respect to Pakistan tends to support that scenario. U.S. administrations have had difficult interactions with democratic leaders while enjoying especially close relations with Pakistani dictators. Mohammad Ayub Khan, installed in a military coup in 1958 was one of Washington’s favorite clients; General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, ruled with an iron fist during the 1970s and 80s; and more recently General Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1999 served as Pakistan’s president and Washington’s close ally from 2001 to 2008. Conversely, history indicates that U.S. officials have been consistently hostile to any Pakistani political leader with a democratic mandate.
Washington has demonstrated a preference for “friendly dictators” over democrats in other countries as well. An especially clear case was the stance of U.S. officials toward domestic developments in South Korea for more than 4 decades. In April 1960, mounting public demonstrations forced Syngman Rhee, who had ruled the Republic of Korea since its inception in 1948, into exile. A civilian government succeeded Washington’s longtime authoritarian client, but that situation did not last long. In May 1960, General Park Chung hee led a military coup and soon entrenched himself in power. U.S. silence about the overthrow of a civilian government was striking, and Park quickly became a favorite of American civilian and military hawks.
History seemed to repeat itself in October 1979 in the aftermath of Park’s assassination. Again, the subsequent civilian government was not allowed to remain in power. Indeed, this time the interval was only 2 months. General Chun Doo hwan led a coup that perpetuated military rule. Not only did U.S. leaders fail to condemn that move – even though Seoul was Washington’s wholly dependent security client – they clearly sympathized with the continuation of South Korea’s autocracy. Jimmy Carter’s administration even failed to forcibly condemn the Gwangju massacre in which Chun’s troops killed 139 pro-democracy demonstrators and wounded more than 3,000. Nor did U.S. officials explicitly denounce the torture of political prisoners at Gwangju prison during the years that followed.
Gen. John Wickham, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea, was perhaps the most brazen and cynical in expressing a preference for cooperative autocrats. He said that Koreans were “like lemmings” and needed to follow a strong leader. It was not until the late 1980s that Washington, reflecting the influence of Secretary of State George Shultz, began to shift its position and support democracy in South Korea.
There are numerous other examples of U.S. leaders cheering on foreign autocrats who ousted democratic governments. Indeed, in some cases (Iran, 1953, Guatemala, 1954, Chile, 1970, among others), Washington directly helped overthrow uncooperative democracies. Even when U.S. involvement was less central, the preference was evident.
The reaction of Barack Obama’s administration to developments in Egypt was emblematic of the U.S. record. The first free elections in Egypt’s history took place in the spring of 2012 following the long dictatorship of Washington’s close client, Hosni Mubarak. Unfortunately, though, the strongest faction emerging from the election was the Muslim Brotherhood and its leader, Mohamed Morsi, who became prime minister. Washington was most unhappy about that situation, as the conduct of U.S. officials confirmed when, barely a year later, Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi led a coup that ousted Morsi.
Washington’s reaction to Sisi’s extinguishing a fledgling democracy that was insufficiently friendly to the U.S. foreign policy agenda was quite revealing. After a brief pause, the Obama administration lavished billions of dollars in both economic and outright military aid on the new, brutally repressive regime.
If facing a choice of supporting compliant foreign authoritarians or compliant foreign democrats, U.S. leaders likely will opt for the latter. However, if the choice is between a compliant authoritarian and a less reliable (much less hostile) democrat, the record shows that Washington has a marked bias in favor of the former. The Biden administration’s willingness to encourage the removal of Imran Khan confirms that bias once more.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. He also served in several senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs.