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