Obama’s World A Special Report by
Last December, National Security Adviser Susan Rice offered a remarkably candid insight into Barack Obama’s foreign policy. “Let’s be honest,” she said, “at times … we do business with governments that do not respect the rights we hold most dear.”
American presidents have long wrestled with this dilemma. During the Cold War, whether it was Dwight Eisenhower overthrowing Iran’s duly elected prime minister or Richard Nixon winking at Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, they often made unsavory moral compromises. Even Jimmy Carter, who said America’s “commitment to human rights must be absolute,” cut deals with dictators.
But Obama, an idealist at home, has turned out to be more cold-blooded than most recent presidents about the tough choices to be made in the world, downgrading democracy and human rights accordingly. From Syria to Ukraine, Egypt to Venezuela, this president has shied away from the pay-any-price, bear-any-burden global ambitions of his predecessors, preferring quiet diplomacy to the bully pulpit—when he is engaged at all.
He has his reasons. A decade of occupying Iraq and Afghanistan soured Americans on George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda,” taking invasion off the table as a policy tool. And there are broader global forces at work too: the meteoric rise of China, new tools for repressing dissent, the malign effect of high oil prices. Freedom in the world has declined for eight straight years, according to Freedom House—not just under Obama.
But if the president is troubled by these trends, he shows few signs of it. “We live in a world of imperfect choices,” Obama shrugged last year—and his administration has made many, currying favor with a rogue’s gallery of tyrants and autocrats. Here, Politico Magazine has assembled a list of America’s 25 most awkward friends and allies, from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, Honduras to Uzbekistan—and put together a damning, revelatory collection of reports on the following pages about the “imperfect choices” the United States has made in each. “I will not pretend that some short-term tradeoffs do not exist,” Rice admitted. Neither will we.
Ethiopia is a democracy at least in name and has had Western (and Chinese) companies salivating at its recent double-digit GDP growth. But longtime strongman Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012, and his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, have leaned on a sweeping anti-terrorism law to stamp out opposition, imprisoning journalists, activists and politicians who dare speak out against the government. Ethiopia has made itself useful to the United States, though, invading Somalia in 2006 at Washington’s behest and disastrously fueling a rise in terrorism that prompted another intervention in late 2011. Rights groups accused the U.S.-trained and -equipped Ethiopian military of war crimes in stomping out an ethnic rebellion in 2008, but Washington has only hugged Addis Ababa tighter: In 2012, Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest states, was the top sub-Saharan African recipient of U.S. aid—and the seventh country overall—raking in some $707 million.
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