A "friendly dictator" from the American point of view is one who is authoritarian but not totalitarian. In the 1980s, friendly dictators included the Shah of Iran, President Somoza of Nicaragua, President Pinochet of Chile, President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and President Marcos of the Philippines. In debates over American foreign policy, liberals and conservatives differed over whether it was better to withdraw support for their regimes (on human rights grounds) or to support them as the lesser of two evils.
A well known quote on this subject is from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Asked about his support for Somoza, he replied that "[Somoza] may be a SOB, but he's our SOB."