America’s Other Most Embarrassing Allies

Hosni Mubarak has plenty of company.

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Maintaining good relations with autocrats is an unfortunate but often necessary component of the delicate balancing act that is U.S. foreign policy. But as Washington learned once again this week, supporting a strongman for the sake of stability can present risks of its own. Here are eight more alliances that could prove embarrassing. 


Leader: King Abdullah

Record: The king has ruled Saudi Arabia since 2005. As ruler of a country with no elections, parliament, or political parties, Abdullah and his family exercise unchecked power within the kingdom, and — thanks to their control of one-fifth of the world’s oil reserves and Islam’s two holiest sites — quite a bit of influence beyond their borders as well. Abdullah surprised many by undertaking some minor reforms of the country’s clerical establishment in 2009, though this may have had more to do with a desire to consolidate his power than any enlightened pluralistic impulses. The 86-year-old king has suffered poor health in recent years, leading to speculation about which of his relatives will succeed him.

The kingdom remains one of the most repressive countries on Earth, particularly so for its 9 million female citizens, who are prevented from holding many jobs or driving and are considered by law to be legally beholden to their husbands. Practicing any religion other than Islam is banned. Torture and detention without trial are commonplace. Around 2,000 people were arrested in 2009 alone on political charges.

U.S. support: Whether they’re kissing and holding hands or bowing, American presidents of both parties can be counted on to show their affection for the House of Saud, a tradition dating back to Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. As the only country in the world with “spare production capacity” — enough extra oil that they can affect global energy prices at will — Saudi cooperation is crucial in order to keep the U.S. economy humming.

Since 9/11, the Saudis have also provided aid and intelligence to the U.S.-led war on terrorism and cracked down on violent extremists in the kingdom and across the border in Yemen. Yet questions remain about the degree to which members of the Saudi royal family still provide financial assistance to Al Qaeda. The U.S. also relies on Saudi Arabia’s stabilizing influence in the Middle East as a counterweight to Iran and as a mediator with the Palestinian Authority. In 2010, the relationship was further cemented by a $60 billion weapons deal including fighter jets, helicopters, and missiles.


Leader: Ali Abdullah Saleh

Record: Saleh first took power in Northern Yemen in a military coup in 1978 and has ruled the entire country since unification in 1991. Opposition parties are marginalized, parliamentary elections have been indefinitely postponed, and civilians are frequently caught up in military strikes in the country’s lawless south.

Yemen is both one of the world’s least stable countries, with an ongoing insurgency by Shiite rebels in the country’s south, and one of the most repressive: Arbitrary detention and torture are pervasive and “honor killings” of women by family members frequently go unpunished. Inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt, demonstrators have taken to the streets of the capital Sana’a for near-daily protests since mid-January, demanding Saleh’s removal as president.

U.S. support: Saleh might seem like an unlikely U.S. ally. In addition to his autocratic style and tolerance of official corruption, he was a close ally of Saddam Hussein and supported Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. But counterterrorism makes for strange bedfellows: Extremist groups within Yemen have been the source of numerous anti-American terrorist attacks, from the USS Cole bombing in 2000 to the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot to the 2010 printer bomb attempt. It’s also reputedly the home of noted terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Given the dangers emanating from Yemen, U.S. policymakers have decided that Saleh’s efforts to restore order the country are the best bet for preventing further attacks, and military aid to the country has more than doubled since the Christmas plot. U.S. military aid to Yemen will likely reach $250 million in 2011, in addition to substantial increases in development aid.  


Leader: King Abdullah II

Record: When the Western-educated Abdullah took the throne in 1999, hopes were high that political reforms would follow. The government lifted 20 years of martial law in 1989, restoring the country’s parliament. But open democracy did not follow: The country’s election system remains deeply flawed, gerrymandered to support tribal candidates and government loyalists. The country’s largest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front, has boycotted the last two parliamentary elections citing widespread fraud and vote-buying. The government has cited the electoral success of Hamas in the nearby Palestinian territories to justify the slow pace of political reforms in the country.

Abdullah’s economic reforms have produced steady GDP growth, but like Egypt, this hasn’t translated into improved quality of life for the country’s poorest citizens. Unemployment may be as high as 30 percent in the kingdom, and the poverty rate is around 25 percent. Thousands protested the government’s economic policies with a sit-in outside parliament on Jan. 16.

Update: On Feb. 1, Jordan’s Prime Minister Samir al-Rifai stepped down amid widespread protests over the government’s economic policies. King Abdullah quickly named Marouf Bakhit as his replacement. 

U.S. support: The U.S. relies on Jordan for counterterrorism assistance as well as its often constructive role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Under the Hashemite royal family, Jordan has pursued one of the most consistently pro-American foreign policies in the Middle East. It has been rewarded with more than $6 billion in development aid since 1952; it’s the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid on a per-capita basis. In 2010, the U.S. and Jordan signed a development deal worth $360 million. The U.S. has also provided significant aid to the Jordan military, including a new fleet of F-16 fighters in 2007.  


Leader: Meles Zenawi

Record: The 2010 election, in which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s party won a remarkable 99.6 percent of the vote, was the culmination of what Human Rights Watch called “the government’s five-year strategy of systematically closing down space for political dissent and independent criticism.” This included attacks and arrests of prominent opposition figures, the shutting down of newspapers and assaults on journalists critical of the government, and doling out international food aid as an incentive to get poor Ethiopians to join the ruling party.

In addition to attacks on domestic media and NGOs, the government also jammed broadcasts by Voice of America and Deutsche Welle in the run-up to the elections. The U.S. NGO Freedom House downgraded Ethiopia to “Not Free” for the first time in its annual Freedom in the World survey this year.

U.S. support: Bordered by Sudan and Somalia, Ethiopia benefits from being an at least nominally pro-American government in a very dangerous neighborhood. In 1998, U.S. President Bill Clinton described Zenawi as the leader of an “African Renaissance.” Washington’s strong support for Addis Ababa continued under President George W. Bush, who saw Zenawi’s primarily Christian government as a bulwark against Islamic extremism in East Africa, and poured in millions in military aid. Bush opposed legislation linking military aid for Ethiopia to human rights and gave tacit support for the country’s 2006 invasion of Somalia.

The rhetoric is somewhat less enthusiastic under the Obama administration — the State Department strongly criticized the 2010 election, for instance — but the U.S. will continue to fund Ethiopia to the tune of $583.5 million this year, despite evidence that the government is directly using this aid to suppress dissent. 


Leader: Yoweri Museveni

Record: Museveni talks a big game on democracy, economic development, and anti-corruption efforts, and to be fair he did institute a number of promising reforms early in his presidency, encouraging the development of free press and elections following decades of strongman rule. But the president has lately started to resemble his predecessors, abolishing term limits after nearly three decades in office, launching legal attacks on independent journalists, harassing opposition parties and flying a $50 million private jet while more than a third of his people live on less than $1 a day, having previously criticized other African leaders for indulging in similar perks. NGOs have also documented numerous cases of unlawful detention and torture by the country’s Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force.

Uganda came under international condemnation in 2010 for a proposed law, still pending, that would punish homosexuality with harsh sentences including the death penalty. Museveni initially supported the law, but later backed off after several countries in Europe threatened to withhold foreign aid. The country’s most prominent gay rights activist, David Kato, was beaten to death on Jan. 27, just weeks after a popular tabloid published his photo along with the caption, “Hang Them.”

U.S. support: Uganda’s stable government, economic growth, and effective response to HIV/AIDS have made it something of a poster child for African development, and it’s one of the top recipients of U.S. aid in Africa. Additionally, Museveni has helped out his friends in Washington by contributing nearly 3,000 peacekeepers to the international mission in Somalia and carried out a massive military offensive against the Lord’s Resistance Army, one of Africa’s most notorious rebel groups.

Obama at first appeared reluctant to cozy up to Museveni, denying several attempts by the Ugandan leader to secure a White House meeting and publicly criticizing the anti-gay bill. But the U.S. administration was nearly silent after Museveni used the 2010 World Cup bombing committed by Somalia’s al-Shabab militants in Kampala as a pretext to further restrict media coverage and opposition parties, likely balancing democracy concerns with the need for Uganda’s continued support in Somalia. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson even told reporters that Uganda had conducted “free and fair elections, in 2006, contradicting the State Department’s own reports, which cited numerous irregularities.


Leader: Islam Karimov

Record: Karimov, Uzbekistan’s first and only post-independence president, has routinely stifled political dissent in Uzbekistan, banning opposition groups — particularly Islamic ones — stifling the press and jailing thousands. His country is routinely cited as one of the world’s worst torturers, with punishments including beatings, rape, and even boiling meted out in its overcrowded jails. Uzbekistan faced international condemnation in 2005 after hundreds of unarmed protesters demonstrating in support of a group of arrested local businessmen were shot by security forces in the city of Andijan. Karimov has repeatedly extended his own tenure beyond the constitutionally mandated two-term limit and international observers have dismissed the country’s elections as shams.    

U.S. support: Uzbekistan shut down a U.S. airbase in the country in 2005, after U.S. criticism of the events at Andijan. The base remains closed, but relations are improving. Gen. David Petraeus made a high-profile visit to the country in 2009 to discuss a possible Uzbek role in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. In April of that year, the two countries signed a deal to allow supplies for the NATO effort to travel through Uzbekistan. In November 2010, Centcom commander Gen. James Mattis visited Uzbekistan to sign a security cooperation pact, including military training.

The administration has continued to push Uzbekistan to improve its human rights record, but the country’s real estate — and proximity to the war in Afghanistan — is evidently too valuable for it to be cut off altogether.


Leader: Nursultan Nazarbayev

Record: Nazarbayev, former leader of the Kazakh Communist Party, has ruled the country without any serious political challenge since independence in 1991. Restrictive election laws make it nearly impossible to opposition parties to run, anti-government newspapers are routinely harassed and shut down, and corruption — particularly related to the country’s energy sector — is reportedly pervasive throughout the state. 

In January, the compliant Kazakh Parliament asked Nazarbayev to call a referendum that would extend his term to 2020, skipping the planned 2012 and 2017 elections entirely. Police cracked down hard on opposition protests against the move. After international condemnation of the plan, Nazarbayev scrapped it and instead called for snap presidential elections to be held nearly two years ahead of schedule.

U.S. support: Kazakhstan and the United States have cooperated closely since 1996 on a project to secure and dispose of the country’s Soviet-era nuclear material. Kazakhstan has also provided transit routes for the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan. The country’s estimated 85 trillion cubic feet of natural gas also make it a highly attractive regional partner.  

To be fair, Kazakhstan isn’t nearly as repressive as its central Asian neighbors, has been far more effective at delivering economic growth, and is — along with Ukraine — one of the great nonproliferation success stories since the end of the Cold War. But U.S. praise for the regime, which has never held a genuinely contested election, has been ridiculously effusive at times. In a 2006 meeting between Bush and Nazarbayev, the U.S. president described Kazakhstan as a “free nation” with a “commitment to institutions that will enable liberty to flourish.”


Leader: Nguyen Tan Dung

Record: The Communist Party of Vietnam is the only party allowed by law and appoints the country’s leaders from within its own ranks — Nguyen Tan Dung was reappointed for a second term in Jan. 26. According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnam has intensified its repression of human rights over the past year, imprisoning human rights defenders, bloggers, and anti-corruption campaigners. Religious groups, both Christian and Buddhist, have faced repeated harassment. Police brutality and deaths under police custody are commonplace.

Like China, Vietnam filters the Internet within the country, blocking objectionable websites and requiring service providers and Internet cafes to install monitoring software to track users. 

U.S. support: Thirty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War and 15 after diplomatic relations were restored, the U.S.-Vietnam relationship has never been closer. The two countries signed a free-trade agreement in 2006, moving Vietnam one step closer to WTO membership. With an eye toward a rising China, the two countries have also deepened defense cooperation, including military drills and a potential civilian nuclear deal. In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that despite “profound differences” over human rights, it was time for the countries to take their relationship to the “next level.” 

Those two impulses may prove more difficult to reconcile than Clinton had hoped: In January 2011, the United States registered a protest with the Vietnamese government after a U.S. diplomat was wrestled to the ground and then arrested by police while trying to visit the home of a prominent Vietnamese dissident.  

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.