Most ex-presidents and former prime ministers devote their lives to making a positive difference in the world, or at least fade away into obscurity. Here are five former leaders who have done neither.
- By Joshua E. KeatingJoshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
Old job: Chancellor of Germany, 1998-2005
New image: Schröder had always been reliably pro-Russia as chancellor, rejecting criticism of Moscow’s human rights record and even describing then-President Vladimir Putin as a “flawless democrat.” But the German public was still shocked by the blatant cynicism of his final act. Less than one month before stepping down, Schröder helped procure a $1.4 billion loan for Gazprom, the Russian state oil monopoly formerly run by current President Dmitry Medvedev. Then, just after stepping down, Schröder accepted the chairmanship of Gazprom’s controversial Nord Stream pipeline project, which will increase Germany’s reliance on Russian natural gas and was agreed to under Schröder’s tenure.
Schröder’s actions were a major political scandal in Germany, with the public understandably wondering why he had been so eager to negotiate the pipeline deal in the first place. Schröder told a German newspaper, “I do not see that I did anything wrong,” and got a court to enforce a gag order preventing rival politician Guido Westerwelle, now Germany’s foreign minister, from criticizing him.
More recently, Schröder joined the board of BP’s troubled Russian subsidiary, TNK-BP, whose British owners have accused the Russian government of attempting to harass them into leaving the country. Schröder continues to toe the Russian line on foreign-policy issues, defending Putin’s democratic credentials and criticizing the recognition of Kosovo’s independence.
JOSÉ MARÍA AZNAR
Old job: Prime minister of Spain, 1996-2004
New image: Spanish voters gave Aznar the boot after his government attempted to pin the blame for the 2004 Madrid train bombings on ETA, the Basque separatist group, when they were in fact carried out by Islamist extremists hoping to punish Spain for its support of the deeply unpopular Iraq war. Since then, Aznar, who runs a think tank and sits on the board of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., has distinguished himself mainly by the extremity of his rhetoric.
Aznar has joined with Czech President Vaclav Klaus in calling global warming a “new religion” and referring to environmentalists as “flag bearers of the global-warming apocalypse … who seek to restrict individual liberties in the name of a noble cause … as the communists did!” (Never mind that under Aznar’s tenure, Spain signed on to the Kyoto Protocol to combat global warming.)
Aznar has also suggested that Muslims apologize for the medieval occupation of Spain, called efforts at interfaith dialogue stupid, and called the U.S. election of an African-American president “a historic exoticism and predictable economic disaster.” Aznar also attacked Spanish government campaign against drunk driving — while accepting an award from a vintner’s association — saying, “Let me decide for myself; that’s what liberty consists of. Who asked you to come and drive for me? Let me drink my wine in peace; I’m not putting anyone at risk.”
Aznar recently kicked off a more defensible campaign to drum up international support for Israel, but the folks in Tel Aviv might want to consider whether he’s really their most effective cheerleader.
Old job: President of Nigeria, 1999-2007
New image: Once lauded for helping his country transition from a military dictatorship to a genuine, if chaotic and violent, democracy, Obasanjo has more recently seen his reputation tarnished by a series of corruption investigations. Then there’s the fact that Obasanjo has never really willingly stepped aside. He attempted to amend the Nigerian Constitution to allow himself a third term, and when that failed, he installed the moribund Umaru Yar’Adua as his successor ahead of an election widely believed to be rigged. It was suspected by many in Nigeria that Yar’Adua was chosen because he was seen as weak and could be manipulated by the Obasanjo loyalists in his cabinet (Obasanjo’s political influence has faded significantly in recent years, however).
In addition to being hit with new revelations of corruption committed during his time in office, including hundreds of millions of dollars in alleged bribes from U.S. contractor Halliburton, Obasanjo became involved in a messy personal scandal when his son accused him in court of sleeping with his own daughter-in-law. Recently, thousands of residents of a town in southwestern Nigeria have protested plans to demolish their homes after Obasanjo acquired their land. His daughter Iyabo, a Nigerian senator, was also embarrassed when she was forced to admit to withdrawing thousands of dollars from the country’s health budget to pay for a retreat in Ghana.
Obasanjo has continued to maintain a high international profile, serving as a U.N. envoy to peace talks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but his traditionalist views have sometimes embarrassed the organization. At a U.N. event this year with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, he called homosexuality an “abomination” and dismissed individuals’ right to privacy, saying “You want to make love to a horse?”
d job: President of the Philippines, 1998-2001
New image: Action-movie-star-turned-president Joseph Estrada was ousted in 2001 after serving less than half his term amid a flurry of corruption charges. Estrada has also admitted to having numerous children out of wedlock and reportedly made crucial policy decisions with the help of a “midnight cabinet” of old drinking buddies. He was finally convicted of “plunder” in 2007 and sentenced to life imprisonment, but was pardoned by his successor, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, just a few weeks later under a deal in which he promised not to go back into politics.
But Estrada broke his promise and entered the 2010 presidential election, doing so, he told the New York Times, “so I can clean up my name and prove to those who removed me that they were wrong.” Instead, what he got was a new legal mess with months of challenges over whether he was eligible to run, having already served as president. Estrada eventually won his case, but lost the election to Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, son of former President Corazon Aquino.
Now Estrada is preparing to defend himself from a U.S. lawsuit filed by the daughters of a Filipino publicist who say the former president was complicit in their father’s killing in 2001. Estrada has joked about the case, telling the Philippine Daily Inquirer, “That’s bullshit. What will they get from me? Where will I get the money?”
Estrada remains popular among poor Filipinos and continues to influence the country’s politics through control of his party, but the country might be better off if the action hero went back to focusing on his movie career.
Old job: Prime minister of Thailand, 2001-2006
New image: Since being deposed in a 2006 coup amid allegations of graft and human rights abuses, Thaksin has lived a peripatetic existence. The former billionaire businessman has served as a “special ambassador” for Nicaragua and an economic advisor in Cambodia, and was briefly owner of the Manchester City soccer club. Thaksin reportedly lived in Germany for more than a year, keeping a low profile.*
This year, Thaksin’s supporters, known as “red shirts,” occupied central Bangkok and stormed government buildings throughout the country in an effort to force the government to step down. Around 90 people were killed in the ensuing clashes between often-armed protesters and police before the two sides agreed to a cease-fire. Thai courts charged Thaksin in absentia for his role in fomenting the protests. Although Thaksin was vocally supportive of the red shirts — he once called into a rally and promised “to make all Thais rich” if his supporters were able to regain political power — he denies funding their efforts. He has also been convicted on additional corruption charges since going into exile, though he maintains that those charges are politically motivated.
Since the red shirts’ defeat, Thaksin has cut back on his media appearances and political activities. In August, he gave up his position with the Cambodian government, helping ease relations between the two countries.
*This section has been corrected since original publication.