America’s Unsavory Allies
A look at the some of the bad guys the U.S. still supports.
The U.S. caught a lot of flak this year for having partnered with Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi before uprisings rocked the Middle East. But in his speech on the Arab Spring in May, President Barack Obama suggested that the days of America narrowly pursuing its interests in the region without the broader priority of promoting reform and democracy were over. “We have embraced the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator,” Obama declared.
Not entirely. Sometimes, it’s difficult to reconcile that revamped formulation of American foreign policy with diplomatic realities. Take two events this week. On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. is operating a drone base in Ethiopia, a country Freedom House recently downgraded to “Not Free” because of “national elections that were thoroughly tainted by intimidation of opposition supporters and candidates.” Only days earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the autocratic Central Asian leaders Islam Karimov and Emomali Rakhmon to discuss how they can help with the war in Afghanistan. “If you have no contact you will have no influence, and other countries will fill that vacuum who do not care about human rights,” Clinton explained ahead of her visit, adding that “it’s a balancing act.”
In fact, even with its post-Arab Spring foreign policy, the U.S. is still engaged in that controversial “balancing act” with a number of repressive leaders. Let’s take a look at eight of the worst offenders.
TEODORO OBIANG NGUEMA MBASOGO
Country: Equatorial Guinea
Record: Since 1979, Obiang has presided over one of the most corrupt countries on Earth. Freedom House notes that he and his inner circle have amassed huge personal fortunes from the country’s substantial oil industry while 60 percent of the population lives on less than $1 per day.
U.S. Interest: Salon‘s Justin Elliott suggests that the Bush administration initially tried to strengthen ties with Equatorial Guinea to secure an alternative to Middle East oil. Under President Bush, exports of Equatorial Guinean oil to the United States increased to 100,000 barrels a day.
U.S. Support: The Bush administration’s support of Equatorial Guinea was clear and included several high-level meetings between Obiang and Bush, as well as the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in the Equatorial Guinean capital, Malabo, which had been closed to protest the country’s human rights abuses. But it’s unclear if President Obama shares the Bush administration’s enthusiasm. Sure, Obama did pose for the photo above with Obiang, Obiang’s wife, and Michelle Obama during a reception at the Metropolian Museum in New York in September 2009. But, more recently, the Justice Department decided to seize $71 million in allegedly corrupt assets from Obiang’s son.
Lawrence Jackson/White House
The former Communist Party leader has ruled Uzbekistan since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, suppressing all political opposition, winning elections by astronomical margins, and intimidating, fining, and jailing dissidents, independent journalists, and Muslims who worship outside onerous state rules. The most notorious incident under Karimov came in 2005 when security forces fired on a crowd of protesters in the city of Andijan, killing several hundred people, according to rights groups. Stories abound about forced child labor during the cotton harvest and brutal, systematized torture of Karimov’s opponents.
Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain may pooh-pooh “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” but the U.S. views Uzbekistan as a critical partner in Afghanistan. As Clinton pointed out during her recent visit to Tashkent, Uzbekistan can help with the war effort by cracking down on al-Qaeda-affiliated Uzbek militants and preventing insurgents from Afghanistan and Pakistan from establishing sanctuaries within its borders. The U.S. also transports non-lethal supplies from Europe to NATO forces in Afghanistan via Uzbek territory. This Northern Distribution Network (NDN) is an attractive alternative to Pakistani supply lines as Washington’s relationship with Islamabad sours. “Uzbekistan is the only other country bordering Afghanistan with access to Eurasian railways and a reasonably high-volume rail network,” Joshua Foust observes at The Atlantic.
The 2005 Andijan incident poisoned U.S.-Uzbek relations, with the U.S. imposing sanctions and Uzbekistan kicking American troops off its military base there, but the partnership has now blossomed again. In an effort to secure the NDN, the White House is urging a receptive Congress to override a ban on military aid to Uzbekistan linked to the country’s poor human rights record (the U.S. already provides Uzbekistan with about $12 million in foreign aid, according to the Center for American Progress). During a visit to a General Motors plant in Tashkent on Saturday, Clinton called the facility a “symbol of our friendship and cooperation” but added that “Uzbekistan needs to continue its reforms in rule of law, democracy, and human rights.”
Above, Karimov meets with President Bush at the White House in March 2002.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
HAMAD BIN ISA AL-KHALIFA
Record: Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy launched a massive crackdown on mainly Shiite protesters during the Arab Spring with the help of troops from its Sunni allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 30 people died in protest-related violence and hundreds more were wounded. While Bahrain lifted its state of emergency in June, the rights group explained in July, “hundreds of those arrested remain in detention and scores have been put on trial in military court.”
U.S. Interest: The U.S. Navy has its Fifth Fleet stationed in Bahrain and the Gulf island kingdom is backed by America’s staunch ally Saudi Arabia, which serves as a regional counterweight to Shiite-led Iran.
Shortly before the Arab Spring, Hillary Clinton praised Bahrain for embarking upon a “democratic path.” Obama has since called on Bahrain’s rulers to implement reforms, but he’s held back from speaking out as forcefully against the crackdown as he did with countries like Libya and Syria. The Obama administration is currently delaying a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain until an “independent” Bahraini panel issues a report on alleged human rights abuses during the uprising. Bahrain’s foreign minister sat down with Foreign Policy yesterday to discuss the standoff.
Above, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates visits Khalifa in Bahrain in December 2008.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Record: Criticism of Ethiopia currently centers on the 2010 election, when Prime Minister Zenawi’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front won a whopping 99.6 percent of the vote. According to Human Rights Watch , the elections were preceded by “months of intimidation of opposition party supporters” and a government campaign to reserve “access to government services and resources to ruling party members.” The rights group adds that while the government released prominent opposition leader Birtukan Midekssa last year, plenty of political prisoners remain in jail.
U.S. Interest: Ethiopia has long been a U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic militant group and Somali al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab, which has carried out attacks across East Africa. This week, we learned that the United States is also operating a drone base in Ethiopia to provide intelligence and coordinate attacks on al-Shabab in East Africa.
U.S. Support: Back in 2006, the U.S. secretly supported an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to wipe out an Islamist movement related to al-Shabab. And while the Obama administration did criticize the 2010 elections, its decision to base a drone program in Ethiopia suggests the alliance is still strong. (
Not to mention that the U.S. provides Ethiopia with around $533 million in foreign aid.)
Above, Zenawi (far right) meets with President Bush, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi in December 2002.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Record: A 2010 WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe discussed the “cronyism and corruption” plaguing Central Asia’s poorest state, noting that Rakhmon and his family “play hardball to protect their business interests, no matter the cost to the economy writ large.” Additionally, in the name of confronting religious fundamentalism in his largely Muslim country, the secular former Soviet apparatchik has cracked down on Muslims wearing veils or beards, banned children under 18 from attending religious services at mosques, demanded that Tajik students studying religion abroad return home, and begun censoring Friday sermons. Rakhmon has also issued many idiosyncratic decrees during his two decades of leadership: In 2007, for example, he announced that he had dropped the Slavic “ov” from the end of his surname and that all babies born to Tajik parents from then on would have to follow suit.
U.S. Interest: Tajikistan, like Uzbekistan, provides the U.S. with a military supply route to Afghanistan.
U.S. Support: During her visit to Dushanbe on Saturday, Clinton emphasized that the U.S. values the “relationship and friendship between our two countries” and is “committed to a long-term partnership.” But she also raised concerns about press and religious freedom. In 2010, the U.S. provided Tajikistan with $48 million in foreign aid.
Above, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (back to camera) meets with Rakhmon (center) in Dushanbe in July 2005.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
ABDULLAH BIN ABDUL AZIZ
Country: Saudi Arabia
Record: While King Abdullah may have turned many heads by announcing last month that women would for the first time be allowed to vote, run for local office, and serve on the king’s advisory board, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is still pretty abysmal and the country used a show of force — and a lot of money — to quickly silence Arab Spring-inspired protests at home.
Human Rights Watch assesses the situation pretty bluntly: “Authorities continue to systematically suppress or fail to protect the rights of nine million Saudi women and girls, eight million foreign workers, and some two million Shia citizens.”
U.S. Interest: Saudi Arabia’s massive oil wealth and ability to check Iran’s power in the region make the kingdom an indispensible U.S. ally.
U.S. Support: One of the most recent examples of America’s stalwart support of the regime is a massive $60 billion weapons sale to the Saudis.
Above, King Abdullah presents President Obama with the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit in Riyadh in June 2009.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Record: When Berdymukhamedov assumed power in 2006, he initially took steps to dismantle the personality cult surrounding his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov or “Turkmenbashi.” But Human Rights Watch reports that the government has returned to the “repressive methods of a previous era” by stifling NGOs and Turkmen activists, arbitrarily interfering with people’s freedom of movement, obliterating press freedoms, shrouding the prison system in secrecy, and cracking down on followers of more austere forms of Islam.
U.S. Interest: Turkmenistan has opened up its airspace so that the U.S. can transport cargo to Afghanistan. The country is also Central Asia’s largest gas producer, and Berdymukhamedov discussed energy ties with Hillary Clinton when they met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in 2009.
U.S. Support: The U.S. provided Turkmenistan with $16 million in foreign aid in 2010. When a reporter asked Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, Jr. whether human rights came up in Clinton’s 2009 meeting with Berdymukhamedov, Blake reportedly responded that the issue did come up but that in bilateral talks “we’ve only got a certain amount of time, and so we touch on the most important things. And human rights is not as big an issue in Turkmenistan as it is in some of the other Central Asian countries.”
Above, Berdymukhamedov waves during a visit to Paris in February 2010.
Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images
TRUONG TAN SANG
Record: The Vietnamese president and senior Politburo member, pictured above in July 2011, presides over a country that is most often criticized for its crackdown on dissent, which includes Internet censorship and cyber-attacks on dissident websites. Forced labor is a consistent issue as well, Human Rights Watch reports.
U.S. Interest: Vietnam may have once been a bitter foe, but the United States now sees the country as an important ally in Southeast Asia as it seeks to contain China’s growing influence in the region and aggressiveness in the South China Sea.
U.S. Support: The U.S. has recently conducted joint naval exercises with Vietnam and struck a deal on nuclear energy through which the U.S. will provide Vietnam with nuclear fuel and technology. The U.S. sends Vietnam about $122 million in foreign aid.
Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF
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