Through the obligatory accolades that inevitably follow the death of a former president, it is important to remember Gerald Ford’s problematic legacy in leading the United States in its international relations during his time as president. However decent and moral Ford may have been as a person, his foreign policy was anything but.
From Southeast Asia to Africa and Latin America, Ford made unsavory alliances and pursued unpopular policies that ignored international human rights standards. His short tenure of office only solidified the American reputation for unprincipled realpolitik that was a hallmark of the Nixon-Kissinger era.
Despite brutal repression, massive corruption and widespread violations of the Paris Peace Agreement, President Ford continued to send billions of dollars of aid to prop up the tottering dictatorship of General Nguyen Van Thieu in South Vietnam. This support needlessly prolonged the war until the Communist-led uprising finally ousted the regime in April 1975.
The following month, Cambodian naval forces seized the Mayaguez. The civilian U.S. merchant ship and its 40-member crew was sailing in a shipping lane that the Cambodians claimed to be within their international maritime boundaries. Without even attempting negotiations for their release, Ford ordered air strikes on the port city of Kompong Som and a Marine assault on the heavily fortified Koh Tang Island. This operation took the lives of 44 American servicemen and scores of Cambodian soldiers and civilians.
Despite reports that the Mayaguez crew had already been released before the U.S. military assault began, the media and leaders of both parties praised Ford for his “decisive” action. The failure of Congress to enforce the recently passed War Powers Act served to severely weaken subsequent efforts to challenge unilateral presidential war-making authority.
In November 1975, President Ford pushed the Spanish government to renege on its promise of independence for Western Sahara. As a result, Morocco seized the territory with Spanish support and in violation of a ruling by the International Court of Justice and a series of UN resolutions. To this day, Western Sahara remains under a Moroccan military occupation that brutally suppresses pro-independence activists and has sent much of the population into exile.
The following month, on a visit to Jakarta, Ford gave the Indonesian dictator Suharto the green light to take over East Timor, then just emerging from Portuguese colonial rule. Less than 24 hours later, Indonesian troops invaded the island nation, embarking upon a series of massacres that would eventually take the lives of 200,000 people – one third of the country’s population – before the occupation finally ended six years ago.
In both cases, Ford blocked the UN Security Council from enforcing its resolutions demanding the withdrawal of the occupying armies and respecting the right of self-determination.
Ford also set back efforts for Middle East peace by vetoing the first UN Security Council resolution that called for the withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces from Arab lands and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel in return for strict security guarantees for Israel.
Ford provided military and economic aid, including training for repressive internal security forces, to more than a dozen Latin American dictatorships, including that of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. He sent large-scale arms aid and security assistance to scores of other brutal dictators, including Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and the Shah of Iran, both of whom routinely used U.S. equipment and training to repress their own people.
In Africa, Ford purchased millions of dollars worth of chrome from the white minority regime in Rhodesia in violation of the mandatory UN embargo. He allied with both the Mobutu dictatorship of Zaire and the apartheid regime in South Africa to arm rebel groups against the internationally recognized government of Angola. This support only ended when Congress voted to block U.S. military involvement in the Angolan civil war. Ford also stifled international efforts to impose sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid government despite its illegal occupation of Namibia and the unprecedented wave of repression following student protests in Soweto in June 1976.
Such alliances with dictators and rights-abusing regimes were well-known and, according to public opinion polls at the time, not popular among the American people. Indeed, Ford was defeated in part because the Democratic nominee, former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, promised to pursue a different foreign policy agenda based on greater respect for human rights and international law.
Yet, despite Ford’s lack of support for such principles, he was wise enough to oppose the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. He recognized that Saddam Hussein’s regime was not a threat to American security, that there were better ways of containing any potential threat, and that an invasion and occupation would create far worse problems for the United States and the region. That the majority of Democratic senators and the Democratic leadership of both houses of Congress voted to authorize the invasion anyway, thereby placing themselves to the right of this conservative Republican president, is indicative of how much foreign policy discourse in Washington has deteriorated in the past 30 years.