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.
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
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
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
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.
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
$250 million in 2011, in addition to substantial increases in development
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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