Seven Autocrats Backed by U.S. Military Aid
With friends like these…
Autocrats. Potentates. Plutocrats. It’s no exaggeration to say the U.S. has a lot of less-than-democratic friends around the world.
Some of them came to power by killing their rivals. Others came to power through elections only to fix the next vote—or employed autocratic means to consolidate control under the veneer of democratic legitimacy. Then there are the autocrats who rose to power within undemocratic systems while being supported by Washington.
Granted, the U.S. has fewer dictatorial allies today than during the height of the Cold War, when much of the Third World lived under despots backed by either Washington or Moscow. But more than zero is still too many. From south of the border to Africa and the Middle East, here are seven.
Nouri Al Maliki
At first, Nouri Al Maliki seemed to be an alright guy when he became Iraq’s prime minister.
Granted, he came to power during troubled times in May 2006, nearly three months to the day after the bombing of the Al Askari mosque further plunged Iraq into civil war. True, he had ties to Iran and Syria when he opposed Saddam Hussein in exile, but he seemed like he was his own man.
Yet it’s hard to overstate how bad 2006 was for Iraq. Al Maliki was accused of looking the other way when Shi’ite death squads influenced by the Sadrist movement began the widespread slaughter of Sunnis. As Shi’ite militias increasingly infiltrated his government, Sunni foreign fighters were coming into the country in droves. Terrorists bombed crowded markets in the day, death squads abducted and murdered people in the night—and bodies piled up in the streets.
It wasn't until the twin developments of the surge and the Awakening movement in 2007—in which thousands of American troops and fed-up Iraqi tribal fighters decided to beat the crap out of the terrorists—did violence decline and the country began coming back from the brink.
Al Maliki did absolutely nothing to capitalize on those gains. He would go on to tell the Americans he didn't really need their help and to pack their bags. All fine and good, except he proceeded to allow ethnic divisions to return while doing little to ease the worries of the Sunnis.
Under his watch, Iraq has slid back into violence, with Shi’ite and Sunni militias clashing once again—as bombings have become a regular occurrence. He also helped obstruct the Iraqi press, restricting news content and the movement of journalists and centralized control of the judiciary under the executive.
Lately, much of his energy has been spent urging the U.S. to help combat domestic terrorism. He wants more money, more guns, and maybe if America can spare them, just a handful of advisers. Meanwhile, Washington has continued to supply Iraq with Hellfire missiles, ScanEagle drones, fighter jets, armored vehicles and anti-aircraft missile launchers.
It’s an odd time to be asking for American help, because as he does, he’s simultaneously been troublingly friendly with the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria. In fairness, he and Al Assad share a mutual enemy in Al Qaeda-linked extremist groups ISIS and Al Nusrah. And that’s while Washington backs autocrats—like Qatar—that support Islamist revolutionaries fighting on the other side.
Porfirio Lobo and Juan Hernández
Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world—83 per 100,000 people. But there’s little hope for improvement. After a 2009 coup witnessed an authoritarian-leaning leftist ousted by autocratic rightists, Honduras further retrenched into a pattern of criminal violence and official corruption.
In the morning of June 28, 2008, soldiers stormed into former Pres. Manuel Zelaya’s residence, grabbed him, drove the president to the airport and forced him onto a plane to Costa Rica. The coup—led by the armed forces and ordered by the Honduran Supreme Court—forced the shutdown of loyalist television stations, terminated electricity throughout the country and began a period of warrantless arrests just short of full-blown martial law.
Porfirio Lobo, a former president of the Honduran National Congress and member of the conservative National Party, won a presidential election in 2009 during a campaign season that included mass arrests and opposition boycotts. Lobo’s successor, National Party candidate Juan Hernández, will take office on Jan. 27.
The disruption caused by the coup wasn't ignored by Latin American drug traffickers.
The Honduran military rallied around the Lobo administration, focused on suppressing anti-government demonstrations while ignoring the Colombian and Mexican cartels that moved in to fill the vacuum. Analysts have estimated the amount of cocaine transiting the country from South America to the United States escalated dramatically to 1,000 tons per month.
Hernández has largely stuck to Lobo’s policies, promising an “iron fist” approach to organized crime. Effectively, this means using Honduran troops—including the Military Police of Public Order (or PMOP) force created this year—to go after the gangsters despite the mixed-success of Lobo’s hard-line strategy and similar efforts in Mexico and Colombia. This also comes despite widespread corruption within the Honduran security forces.
The U.S. did cut some funding to Honduras in the coup’s aftermath. Washington suspended funding in 2013 for the Honduras DIECP, a government agency responsible for vetting police officers. But the White House never designated Zelaya’s ouster a coup, and continues to direct more than $2 million per year to the Honduran police and military while maintaining a contingent of American troops at Soto Cano Air Base. “The collaboration with the Honduran authorities has been fantastic,” Greg Julian, a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command, said in September.
The Al Thani clan
The rulers of tiny, oil- and gas-rich Qatar—per capita one of the world’s wealthiest countries—are close U.S. allies. They’re also among the most important supporters of Islamic militants in Syria. And that, ahem, complicates the Al Thanis’ relationship with America.
Sixty-one-year-old Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani seized power in Qatar in 1995 and last summer handed the throne to his 33-year-old son Tamim. Like father, like son, there has been no discernible shift in the tiny kingdom’s policies. The United States and allies base thousands of troops and scores of warplanes at Al Udeid air base in Qatar, which boasts one of the region’s longest runways. In mid-December, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel signed an new 10-year extension of the basing agreement, ensuring a powerful American presence in Qatar through 2023.
But the U.S.-Qatari alliance is strained. Autocratic Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, is a strong supporter of Islamic revolutionaries all over the world. And in Syria, the Al Thanis back rebel brigades that are suspected of having loose ties to Al Qaeda.
To be fair, even the United States formally supports Syrian opposition forces that can be fairly described as “sympathizing” with Al Qaeda—and those radical sympathies are easily overstated. What’s arguably more worrying to Washington is that Qatar reportedly supplied its rebel friends in Syria with shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles—despite the Americans specifically asking that these dangerous weapons, which could be used to shoot down airliners, be kept out of rebels’ hands.
There is nothing simple about Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda and one of the most important allies of the U.S. in crisis-prone Central Africa.
He made his big entry on the international scene by stopping the Rwandan genocide, after the Clinton administration looked on while hundreds of thousands were slaughtered. Hailed as liberator and one of the best generals in contemporary military history, Kagame then used this common history to mercilessly guilt-trip the U.S. and everybody else into ignoring every last one of his government’s human rights abuses, of which there are quite a lot.
Under his rule, Rwanda invaded its neighbor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo—twice—igniting the deadliest conflict since the Second World War. The DRC was plundered on a grand scale and is still ravaged 20 years later by war and violence. Even after pulling its own troops out of the country, Rwanda supported local armed groups who committed countless atrocities—all while three consecutive U.S. presidents hailed Kagame as a role model for African leadership and a protector of human rights.
There is some reason for praise: Rwanda itself has been overwhelmingly peaceful and experienced massive economic growth since the end of the genocide. Today it is ranked as one of the top places in Africa to do business.
But the successes come at the price of a deeply authoritarian state. Kagame presides over one of the most effective spy and police system in the world. Political opposition is nonexistent in the country and there are credible reports of assassination plots against opposition members residing in South Africa, Uganda and even the United Kingdom.
If you are looking for an African head of state to become an important military ally—and your stated mission is to spread good governance and democracy—you probably shouldn't choose the guy who had his best friend killed to get the job. Nor a guy who proceeded to hold on to the job for more than a quarter century.
But this is exactly what the U.S. has done with recruiting Blaise Compaoré, ruler of poor-as-dirt Burkina Faso, as one of its most important allies in the unstable Sahel region. The U.S. military has spy planes stationed on the airport of Burkina’s capital Ouagadougou and is generous in funding training missions—all in the name of combating terrorist groups in the region. It has also bankrolled the government with millions of dollars in development aid.
Compaoré has used this cooperation to cement rule that now lasts for 26 years. It started bloody with his predecessor, Thomas Sankara, nicknamed “Africa’s Ché Guevara” for his social reforms and revolutionist rhetoric. Sankara was murdered in a coup orchestrated by Compaoré. In the quarter of a century under Compaoré rule, Burkina Faso has made barely any economic development and the president-for-life holds power in an iron grip.
Compaoré is also a shrewd dictator, using a game of political divide and rule instead of outright violence to hold on to power. This makes it easy for powers like the U.S. and France to have good relations with the regime, which uses the resources provided by its Western allies to essentially buy off internal political dissent.
It is not all benevolence, mind. Quite a few people have lost their lives at the hands of the regime, not least Norbert Zongo, a renowned investigative journalist, who was found murdered in his burned-out car after sticking his nose too deep into the circumstances surrounding the death of François Compaoré, Blaise’s brother’s personal driver.
Compaoré also had his hands in at least two civil wars in the region, supporting rebel groups in both Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. That hasn't stopped him from acting as the region’s main mediator, though, regularly hammering out peace agreements—every one of which fell apart at the end.
This guy, right? One of the largest recipients of American aid money today. Thousands of American men and women have died in his country. Hamid Karzai has been the face of the new Afghanistan for more than a decade.
That face has not aged well.
He used to seem like the perfect leader for a new Afghanistan. His unique attire is drawn from all the major ethnic groups in Afghanistan to symbolize the unity of Afghanistan and the future of its people. After the Taliban was ousted, Karzai, a member of the Northern Alliance, was put in charge of the interim government. He subsequently won the country’s first democratic election with widespread support inside and outside of the country. All seemed well.
That was in 2004. Much has changed since. The Taliban is resurgent, corruption is widespread, and development funds all over the country are being squandered. Karzai won his second presidential term in 2009 to much less acclaim with accusations of ballot stuffing, voter fraud and armed intimidation by his supporters.
His family has taken advantage of his power to run wild. His brother Mahmud Karzai managed to lose a lot of money investing in Dubai real estate. His more infamous brother Wali Karzai, who was frequently compared to Pablo Escobar, allegedly ran an opium empire and his own personal army until being assassinated by a bodyguard in 2011.
Karzai seems to have done everything he can to reverse all the gains that so many coalition and Afghan lives have died for. He has been infamously unsupportive of women’s rights and education activists, stolen elections, and handed out money to his friends and family as though it will never run out.
While American money and lives continue to be spent in Afghanistan, often alongside Afghan troops, Karzai is constantly complaining about America and its allies, blaming them for much of the violence in the country. He tries to capitalize on anti-American sentiment, while keeping a grip on the spigot of American money and weapons. Afghan officials, and even recently visitors from Iraq have informed him in no uncertain terms that this is a terrible plan. He continues to go around talking smack about everyone, generally acting like a tool, and seems oblivious to the fact that he has very few friends left inside or outside of Afghanistan anymore.
Ethiopia has come a long way since TV-reports of starving babies with swollen bellies gave cause for the Live Aid phenomenon. Today, Ethiopia is still relatively poor, but a regional power to be reckoned with—and arguably the most important U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa.
The U.S. has invested millions in development and military aid in the country, today headed by prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn. He himself is the successor of Meles Zenawi, who held the office from 1995, when he took power as leader of a anti-communist rebel group until his death in 2012. Desalegn represents continuity for the Ethiopian regime, having been deputy prime minister and foreign minister under Zenawi.
With neighbors like Somalia, Eritrea, South Sudan and Sudan, Ethiopia sits on prime strategic real estate. The U.S. has invested heavily in Ethiopia’s military capabilities, making the country’s army into one of the continent’s most formidable fighting forces.
Ethiopia for its part has made frequent use of this gift, using its armed forces generously to suppress various rebel groups on its own territory. It also intervened extensively in neighboring Somalia, arguably contributing considerably to the rise of violent Islamist groups in the country, who could style themselves as protectors from the Ethiopian “invaders.”
Ethiopia is also integral part of the U.S. drone war, hosting several air bases used by the program to target extremists in Somalia. This has given Desalegn and his predecessor license to erect an authoritarian system of government, with a very limited political space for the opposition.
Demonstrations are regularly suppressed—violently—and the country’s considerable Muslim population is eyed with deep suspicion by the Christian political elite. The government is also dominated by ethnic Tigrinya, who were at the heart of the struggle against the communist regime overthrown in the 1990s. Since this struggle, the Tigrinya elite has dominated the military and political leadership, as well as the country’s economy.
The result is a society riddled by frustration and envy, held together until now by solid economic growth and the government’s iron grip.