For U.S., Dealing With Dictators Is Not Unusual

Jun 14, 2011

Like his predecessors, President Barack Obama sometimes has to shake hands with dictators.

During his speech last month about the Arab Spring protest movements, Obama suggested that America's interests would come to be better aligned with its values.

But Obama has continued to meet with authoritarian leaders from the Middle East and Africa, while the U.S. still gives aid to dictators in other parts of the globe, as well.

When Obama was criticized for meeting President Ali Ben Bongo of Gabon last Thursday in the Oval Office, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters: "Look, I think that it's a little naive to believe that the president of the United States should not meet with leaders who don't, you know, meet all the standards that we would have for perfect governance, OK? This is an important relationship."

Bilateral relations are often based on military, security and economic needs, not on human rights records or anti-corruption standards. The U.S. maintains ties with many countries that fall far short of its own standards for representative democracy.

Sometimes engagement itself is considered the best way to influence another nation's policies towards its own people. That certainly been a point raised during debates over the years about the U.S. maintaining trade relations and other formal ties with China.

"The job of the United States is not to sit by passively and hope that things get better," says Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). "There are dictators we have to deal with that we have to insure do not remain dictators."

To gain perspective on the importance of such relationships, NPR informally polled several foreign policy analysts and human rights groups. This is not a representative sample but a few examples that aim to explain why the U.S. aligns itself with regimes that are not entirely savory:


Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa became emir in 1999, upon the death of his father, and declared himself king in 2002. The Al-Khalifa family, which is Sunni Muslim, has ruled Bahrain since 1793. Through the course of his reign, Hamad bin Al-Khalifa had put in place several political reforms, but when overtly challenged by protesters this year, his regime — and the neighboring Saudis — reacted violently. No mention in the U.S. media of Bahrain and its crackdown against Arab Spring protesters was complete without noting that the tiny island-nation is home to the Fifth Fleet, a key U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. started a $580 million military construction program in Bahrain last year. In his May 19 speech on the Arab Spring, Obama criticized Bahrain's "mass arrests and brute force" as a violation of human rights, but noted that the country is a "longstanding partner" and said the U.S. is "committed to its security." The president has in general been much less critical of Bahrain's use of force against its people than Syria's. "Possibly because of concerns that a rise to power of the Shiite opposition could jeopardize the extensive U.S. military cooperation with Bahrain, the March-May government crackdown has not prompted the Obama administration to call for a change of the Al-Khalifa regime," the Congressional Research Service reported last month.


Ali Ben Bongo took power in 2009 following an election marred by violence against opposition parties and widespread claims of electoral abuse. He succeeded his father, Omar Bongo, who had ruled for 42 years prior to his death in 2009. Although the West African nation is nominally democratic, the president has strong authority over national assembly decision-making and citizens have limited ability to criticize the government, according to Amnesty International. Last week, Bongo was invited to the White House for a meeting with Obama. After all, Gabon currently presides over the U.N. Security Council and has been helpful in backing U.S. policies on matters such as Libya and Syria. "It is a little ironic that in the process of condemning Syria, we're obliged to roll out the red carpet for a country that itself is noted for quite a few human rights abuses," says Joshua Keating, associate editor of Foreign Policy.

Saudi Arabia

The kingdom has been ruled since its 1932 founding by the Al Saud family. King Abdullah II has been credited with opening up more space for debate since ascending to the throne in 2005. Nevertheless, Saudi officials have reiterated the ban on public demonstrations since the beginning of the Arab Spring and the kingdom has been the leading counter-revolutionary force in the region, notably with its decision to send troops into neighboring Bahrain. The kingdom's human rights violations have long been a thorn in bilateral relations with the U.S., but Saudi Arabia remains America's leading trade partner in the Middle East and a major purchaser of U.S. military hardware. Obama took care not to mention Saudi Arabia in his recent speech about democracy in the Middle East, observers contend. Saudi Arabia is a key country in terms of regional stability and U.S. access to the region and its oil, says David F. Schmitz, a historian at Whitman College. "Saudi Arabia is an extraordinarily important country in its own part of the world and we need to recognize that, even as we need to recognize that it's not impossible for the Saud dynasty to remain as it has for the last 300 years," says Pletka of AEI.


Islam Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, having been accused by the United Nations of "routine use of torture." Human rights groups last week condemned Kazakhstan for repatriating 28 Uzbek Muslims to their neighboring homeland, for fear they would be persecuted. "It's no secret that torture is systematic in Uzbekistan," says Steve Swerdlow, Uzbekistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. Uzbekistan is home to half the population of Central Asia and the U.S. established closer relations with the country, which shares a border with Afghanistan, following the terrorist attacks of 2001. Relations soured for a time after the U.S. called for investigations into a massacre at Andijan in 2005. Uzbekistan denied the U.S. use of an airfield and other facilities. Relations have since improved and the Obama administration has credited Uzbekistan with "playing a vital role in international efforts to confront violent extremists in Afghanistan."


Nguyan Minh Triet will soon surrender the presidency, which is a largely ceremonial post through which top Communist Party officials roll on a five-year cycle. Power primarily resides within the Politburo — and there has been no liberalizing of Vietnam's one-party, communist rule. Quite the reverse has been the case, according to most outside observers, with suppression of dissent increasing in recent years. Nevertheless, the Obama administration last summer announced its intentions to take relations with the former enemy to "the next level" and quickly made good on this goal. Over the past year, both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have made visits to Hanoi. U.S. naval vessels are pulling into Vietnamese ports, while an increasing number of Vietnamese officers are furthering their training at U.S. military academies. Things haven't always gone smoothly. Christian Marchant, a political officer with the U.S. embassy in Hanoi, was beaten by Vietnamese police when he attempted to meet with a prominent dissident. Still, the U.S. views ties with Vietnam as a useful hedge against its rising neighbor, China. Tensions between China and Vietnam have risen in recent days as Vietnam prepared for a live-fire exercise Monday in the disputed South China Sea. "China and proximity to China are important to what the long-term relationships might be," says David Schmitz, author of two books about U.S. relations with right-wing dictators, referring to countries such as Vietnam and Uzbekistan. "One of the things that went very much undermentioned about the Bush doctrine was how much of it was about China."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit