Biden Defaults to ‘War on Terror Approach’ to Chad

The U.S. president outlined big promises on human rights reforms. Critics say he’s already breaking them in Africa.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Chadian soldiers carry the coffin of late Chadian President Idriss Déby during his funeral.
Chadian soldiers carry the coffin of late Chadian President Idriss Déby during the state funeral in N'Djamena, Chad, on April 23. Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this month, U.S. President Joe Biden’s envoy to the United Nations paid tribute to the late leader of Chad, lauding Idriss Déby as “a leader and a partner who dedicated his life to the fight against violent extremism” and “a military man at his core.”

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s remarks offered an effusive tribute to the longtime ruler of the African country that underscored how the United States and other major regional powers have come to rely on Chad in the fight against terrorist groups spreading across the Sahel region of Africa.

Thomas-Greenfield called for an “inclusive national dialogue” to lead to a “democratically elected government that the people of Chad deserve.” Absent from her statement, however, was any mention of Déby’s checkered human rights record over the course of his three decades of rule, or the spurious transfer of power after his death, in which the Chadian Army appointed Déby’s son as interim ruler in an apparent violation of the country’s constitution that bears the hallmarks of a military coup.

A growing chorus of human rights organizations and civil society groups are voicing anger over the United States’ public signaling on Déby’s legacy, and his son’s transition to power, as squandering a narrow window of opportunity to push for democratic reforms in the country. They see Chad as a worrying test case of whether Biden will make good on his promise to promote democracy, rule of law, and human rights worldwide to repair the United States image on the world stage after the Trump administration—and whether Washington will continue prioritizing counterterrorism partnerships above all else.

“We’re just papering over the fact that none of what [Déby has] done comports with our values of human rights, rule of law, or democracy,” said Elizabeth Shackelford, a former U.S. diplomat now with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a think tank. “Yes, there have been a lot of good messages from the U.S. government on these issues … but I don’t necessarily see that that shift they’re talking about and championing is going to happen,” she added. “What’s happening in Chad is a real telltale sign.”

The State Department rejected these lines of criticism, saying the United States consistently presses Chadian authorities to “turn their attention toward establishing a peaceful, timely, and civilian-led transition of power to a democratically elected government,” according to a State Department spokesperson. “A representative, elected government is the best path to long-term prosperity and stability in Chad and the region.”

Most experts agree that Chad is in a precarious position after Déby’s death, as is its role as the linchpin of stability in a region wracked by violence and a growing footprint of deadly terrorist organizations. Downplaying Déby’s dismal human rights record and giving the transitional government led by his son breathing space may be the least bad option in the eyes of U.S. policymakers, as some experts argue.

The stakes couldn’t be higher: If Chad collapsed, as Libya did after Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fall, it could spark a destabilizing chain reaction, with potentially disastrous knock-on effects in neighboring Sudan to the east and the wider Sahel region to the west. On the other hand, what sows the seeds of extremism and instability in the long run are corrupt, autocratic governments.

The controversy points to an existential debate in U.S. foreign policy: whether, and when, to press autocratic governments on democracy and human rights when Washington is partnering with them on pressing military and security issues.

France, the former regional colonial power with troops based in the Sahel, faces the same challenge and has taken a similar approach to Washington. French President Emmanuel Macron attended Déby’s funeral last month, lauding him as a “friend” and “courageous” fighter who died defending his country.

Human rights experts and aid workers in the region have offered similar criticisms of both Washington’s and Paris’s approach.

“The French are really taking a huge role in Chad, and they seem fixated on backing strongmen across the region as if they’ve read Kissinger for the first time,” fumed one aid official based in the region, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S. and French efforts, alongside those of governments in the region, to roll back extremist groups in the Sahel have failed to yield considerable results. 2020 was the deadliest year on record for violent Islamist extremist groups in the Sahel, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Violent attacks from such groups as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara are on the rise and have spread to new regions in West Africa, from southern Mali into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.

Déby died on the battlefield during clashes with rebel groups late last month shortly after winning his sixth term in office in elections that international observers assert were neither fair nor credible. Déby ruled Chad with an iron fist for three decades by ruthlessly cracking down on dissent and jailing or targeting opposition leaders. Yaya Dillo, a former Chadian government official and rebel leader who tried to run against Déby in elections in April, said Déby’s security forces killed five of his family members, including his mother, when they tried to arrest him ahead of the elections.

For the United States, soft-pedaling concerns about democracy or human rights to mollify governments with which it has close military ties is nothing new; indeed, it is a defining feature of the post-9/11 era, where Washington relies on cooperation with autocratic governments, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt and Chad, to help crack down on terrorist groups. What is new, however, is the U.S. president, his stated foreign policy agenda, and a pervasive hunger in Biden’s own party for a shift in foreign policy after decades spent mired in costly counterterrorism campaigns with mixed results.

When he came into office in January, Biden vowed to reverse the decline of democracy and revive U.S. leadership on human rights. His top aides, including Thomas-Greenfield, have led the charge, condemning human rights violations in Ethiopia, the conflict in Yemen, and a military coup in Myanmar. That’s what made Thomas-Greenfield’s comments on the late Chadian ruler stand out to some human rights experts. Adotei Akwei of Amnesty International said the comments reflect a “muscle memory commitment to the war on terror approach” of prioritizing military partnerships first and democracy and governance issues only later.

“The response to Déby’s death and subsequent de facto military coup is the extreme example of where this kind of approach will take you,” he said. “It is surprising that they all felt obligated to ignore Déby’s legacy and to reiterate their support.”

When pressed on the matter in a briefing to reporters on April 20, State Department spokesperson Ned Price repeatedly declined to comment on whether Déby’s son, Gen. Mahamat Idriss Déby, violated Chad’s constitution by taking power. Under current U.S. law, labeling a power transfer in a foreign country as a coup could trigger a halt of U.S. security assistance funding.

“While it is still too soon to definitively characterize the nature of ongoing developments, we will remain engaged and will continue to push for a path to a representative, democratically elected government,” a State Department spokesperson said when asked for follow-up by Foreign Policy.

Some regional experts say Déby’s death may offer the only narrow window of opportunity for Chad’s civil society and scattered opposition groups to push for meaningful democratic reform—efforts that would take considerable and careful international pressure.

That’s what makes the U.S. and French response to Déby’s death and the transition so discouraging, according to Kamissa Camara, Mali’s former minister of foreign affairs, now with the U.S. Institute of Peace.

“It’s very frustrating for human rights defenders, for civil society groups, for political opposition. Because now is their time,” she said. “Now is the unique opportunity for them to change the trajectory of the country and turn to democracy, but yet the international partners are not explicitly or openly supporting them.”

“The U.S. underappreciates the power that its words have on countries in Africa,” she added.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer