Tunisian protesters demonstrate against former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Monday, January 18, 2011. (Photo: Nasser Nouri)
What the Tunisian revolution and WikiLeaks tell us about American support for corrupt dictatorships in the Muslim world.
Here’s one obvious lesson of the Tunisian Revolution of 2011: paranoia about Muslim fundamentalist movements and terrorism is causing Washington to make bad choices that will ultimately harm American interests and standing abroad. State Department cable traffic from capitals throughout the Greater Middle East, made public thanks to WikiLeaks, shows that U.S. policy-makers have a detailed and profound picture of the depths of corruption and nepotism that prevail among some “allies” in the region.
The same cable traffic indicates that, in a cynical Great Power calculation, Washington continues to sacrifice the prospects of the region’s youth on the altar of “security.” It is now forgotten that America’s biggest foreign policy headache, the Islamic Republic of Iran, arose in response to American backing for Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, the despised Shah who destroyed the Iranian left and centrist political parties, paving the way for the ayatollahs’ takeover in 1979.
State Department cables published via WikiLeaks are remarkably revealing when it comes to the way Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his extended family (including his wife Leila’s Trabelsi clan) fastened upon the Tunisian economy and sucked it dry. The riveting descriptions of U.S. diplomats make the presidential “family” sound like True Blood’s vampires overpowering Bontemps, Louisiana.
In July of 2009, for instance, the U.S. ambassador dined with Nesrine Ben Ali el-Materi and Sakher el-Materi, the president’s daughter and son-in-law, at their sumptuous mansion. Materi, who rose through nepotism to dominate Tunisia’s media, provided a 12-course dinner with Kiwi juice -- “not normally available here” -- and “ice cream and frozen yoghurt he had flown in from Saint Tropez,” all served by an enormous staff of well-paid servants. The ambassador remarked on the couple’s pet tiger, “Pasha,” which consumed “four chickens a day” at a time of extreme economic hardship for ordinary Tunisians.
Other cables detail the way the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans engaged in a Tunisian version of insider trading, using their knowledge of the president’s upcoming economic decisions to scarf up real estate and companies they knew would suddenly spike in value. In 2006, the U.S. ambassador estimated that 50% of the economic elite of Tunisia was related by blood or marriage to the president, a degree of nepotism hard to match outside some of the Persian Gulf monarchies.
Despite full knowledge of the corruption and tyranny of the regime, the U.S. embassy concluded in July 2009: “Notwithstanding the frustrations of doing business here, we cannot write off Tunisia. We have too much at stake. We have an interest in preventing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups from establishing a foothold here. We have an interest in keeping the Tunisian military professional and neutral.”
The notion that, if the U.S. hadn’t given the Tunisian government hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid over the past two and a half decades, while helping train its military and security forces, a shadowy fringe group calling itself “al-Qaeda in the Maghreb” might have established a “toehold” in the country was daft. Yet this became an all-weather, universal excuse for bad policy.
In this regard, Tunisia has been the norm when it comes to American policy in the Muslim world. The Bush administration's firm support for Ben Ali makes especially heinous the suggestion of some neoconservative pundits that George W. Bush's use of democratization rhetoric for neo-imperialist purposes somehow inspired the workers and internet activists of Tunisia (none of whom ever referenced the despised former US president). It would surely have been smarter for Washington to cut the Ben Ali regime off without a dime, at least militarily, and distance itself from his pack of jackals. The region is, of course, littered with dusty, creaking, now exceedingly nervous dictatorships in which government is theft. The U.S. receives no real benefits from its damaging association with them.
No Dominoes to Fall
The Bush administration’s deeply flawed, sometimes dishonest Global War on Terror replayed the worst mistakes of Cold War policy. One of those errors involved recreating the so-called domino theory -- the idea that the U.S. had to make a stand in Vietnam, or else Indonesia, Thailand, Burma and the rest of Asia, if not the world, would fall to communism. It wasn’t true then -- the Soviet Union was, at the time, less than two decades from collapsing -- and it isn’t applicable now in terms of al-Qaeda. Then and now, though, that domino theory prolonged the agony of ill-conceived wars.
Despite the Obama administration’s abandonment of the phrase “war on terror,” the impulses encoded in it still powerfully shape Washington’s policy-making, as well as its geopolitical fears and fantasies. It adds up to an absurdly modernized version of domino theory. This irrational fear that any small setback for the U.S. in the Muslim world could lead straight to an Islamic caliphate lurks beneath many of Washington’s pronouncements and much of its strategic planning.
A clear example can be seen in the embassy cable that acquiesced in Washington’s backing of Ben Ali for fear of the insignificant and obscure “al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.” Despite the scary name, this small group was not originally even related to Usamah Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, but rather grew out of the Algerian Muslim reformist movement called Salafism.
If the U.S. stopped giving military aid to Ben Ali, it was implied, Bin Laden might suddenly be the caliph of Tunis. This version of the domino theory -- a pretext for overlooking a culture of corruption, as well as human rights abuses against dissidents -- has become so widespread as to make up the warp and woof of America’s secret diplomatic messaging.
Sinking Democracy in the Name of the War on Terror
Take Algeria, for instance. American military assistance to neighboring Algeria has typically grown from nothing before September 11th to nearly a million dollars a year. It may be a small sum in aid terms, but it is rapidly increasing, and it supplements far more sizeable support from the French. It also involves substantial training for counterterrorism; that is, precisely the skills also needed to repress peaceful civilian protests.
Ironically, the Algerian generals who control the strings of power were the ones responsible for radicalizing the country’s Muslim political party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Allowed to run for office in 1992, that party won an overwhelming majority in parliament. Shocked and dismayed, the generals abruptly abrogated the election results. We will never know if the FIS might have evolved into a parliamentary, democratic party, as later happened to the Justice and Development Party of Turkey, the leaders of which had been Muslim fundamentalists in the 1990s.
Angered at being deprived of the fruits of its victory, however, FIS supporters went on the offensive. Some were radicalized and formed an organization they called the Armed Islamic Group, which later became an al-Qaeda affiliate. (A member of this group, Ahmed Ressam, attempted to enter the U.S. as part of the "millennial plot" to blow up Los Angeles International Airport, but was apprehended at the border.) A bloody civil war then broke out in which the generals and the more secular politicians were the winners, though not before 150,000 Algerians died. As with Ben Ali in neighboring Tunisia, Paris and Washington consider President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika (elected in 1999) a secular rampart against the influence of radical Muslim fundamentalism in Algeria as well as among the Algerian-French population in France.
To outward appearances, in the first years of the twenty-first century, Algeria regained stability under Bouteflika and his military backers, and the violence subsided. Critics charged, however, that the president connived at legislative changes, making it possible for him to run for a third term, a decision that was bad for democracy. In the 2009 presidential election, he faced a weak field of rivals and his leading opponent was a woman from an obscure Trotskyite party.
Cables from the U.S. embassy (revealed again by WikiLeaks) reflected a profound unease with a growing culture of corruption and nepotism, even though it was not on a Tunisian scale. Last February, for example, Ambassador David D. Pearce reported that eight of the directors of the state oil company Sonatrach were under investigation for corruption. He added, “This scandal is the latest in a dramatically escalating series of investigations and prosecutions that we have seen since last year involving Algerian government ministries and public enterprises. Significantly, many of the ministries affected are headed by ministers considered close to Algerian President Bouteflika…”
And this was nothing new. More than three years earlier, the embassy in Algiers was already sounding the alarm. Local observers, it reported to Washington, were depicting President Bouteflika’s brothers “Said and Abdallah, as being particularly rapacious.” Corruption was spreading into an increasingly riven and contentious officer corps. Unemployment among youth was so bad that they were taking to the Mediterranean on rickety rafts in hopes of getting to Europe and finding jobs. And yet when you read the WikiLeaks cables you find no recommendations to stop supporting the Algerian government.
As usual when Washington backs corrupt regimes in the name of its war on terror, democracy suffers and things slowly deteriorate. Bouteflika’s flawed elections which aimed only at ensuring his victory, for instance, actively discouraged moderate fundamentalists from participating and some observers now think that Algeria, already roiled by food riots, could face Tunisian-style popular turmoil. (It should be remembered, however, that the Algerian military and secret police, with years of grim civil-war experience behind them, are far more skilled at oppressive techniques of social control than the Tunisian army.)
Were oil-rich Algeria, a much bigger country than Tunisia, to become unstable, it would be a strategically more striking and even less predictable event. Blame would have to be laid not just at the feet of Bouteflika and his corrupt cronies, but at those of his foreign backers, deeply knowledgeable (as the WikiLeaks cables indicate) but set in their policy ways.
The Ben Alis of Central Asia
Nor is the problem confined to North Africa or even anxious U.S.-backed autocrats in the Arab world. Take the natural gas and gold-rich Central Asian country of Uzbekistan with a population of about 27 million, whose corruption the U.S. embassy was cabling about as early as 2006. The dictatorial but determinedly secular regime of President Islam Karimov was an early Bush administration ally in its Global War on Terror, quite happy to provide Washington with torture-inspired confessions from “al-Qaeda” operatives, most of whom, according to former British ambassador Craig Murray, were simply ordinary Uzbek dissidents. (Although Uzbeks have a Muslim cultural heritage, decades of Soviet rule left most of the population highly secularized, and except in the Farghana Valley, the Muslim fundamentalist movement is tiny.) Severe human rights abuses finally caused even the Bush administration to criticize Karimov, leading Tashkent to withdraw basing rights in that country from the U.S. military.
In recent years, however, a rapprochement has occurred, as Washington’s regional security obsessions once again came to the fore and the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwest tribal belt ramped up. The Obama administration is now convinced that it needs Uzbekistan for the transit of supplies to Afghanistan and that evidently trumps all other policy considerations. As a result, Washington is now providing Uzbekistan with hundreds of millions of dollars in Pentagon contracts, a recipe for further corruption.
Last spring, one Central Asian government -- Kyrgyzstan’s -- fell, thanks to popular discontent, which should have been a warning to Washington, and yet U.S. officials already appear to have forgotten what lessons those events held for its policies in the region. As long as ruler Kurmanbek Bakiev allowed the U.S. to use Manas Air Base for the transit and supply of American troops in Afghanistan, Washington overlooked his corruption and his authoritarian ways. Then it turned out that his regime was not as stable as had been assumed.
Here’s a simple rule of thumb in such situations: bad policy creates even worse policy. The Obama administration’s mistake in ramping up its Afghan War left it needing ever more supplies, worrying about perilous supply lines through Pakistan, and so vulnerable to transit blackmail by the ruling kleptocracies of Central Asia. When their populations, too, explode into anger, the likely damage to U.S. interests could be severe.
And keep in mind that, as the State Department again knows all too well, Afghanistan itself is increasingly just a huge, particularly decrepit version of Ben Ali’s Tunisia. U.S. diplomats were at least somewhat wary of Ben Ali. In contrast, American officials wax fulsome in their public praise of Afghan President Hamid Karzai (even if privately they are all too aware of the weakness and corruption of “the mayor of Kabul”). They continue to insist that the success of his government is central to the security of the North American continent, and for that reason, Washington is spending billions of dollars propping him up.
Corruption Triumphant in the Name of Counterterrorism
Sometimes it seems that all corrupt regimes backed by the U.S. are corrupt in the same repetitive way. For instance, one form of corruption U.S. embassy cables particularly highlighted when it came to the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans in Tunisia was the way they offered “loans” to their political supporters and family members via banks they controlled or over which they had influence.
Since these recipients understood that they did not actually have to repay the loans, the banks were weakened and other businesses then found it difficult to get credit, undermining the economy and employment. Thanks to the Jasmine revolution, the problem finally is beginning to be addressed. After the flight of Ben Ali, the Central Bank director was forced to resign, and the new government seized the assets of the Zitoune Bank, which belonged to one of his son-in-laws.
Similarly, in Afghanistan, Da Kabul Bank, founded by Karzai ally Sherkan Farnood, was used as a piggy bank for Karzai’s presidential campaign and for loans to members of his family as well as the families of the warlords in his circle. Recipients included Karzai’s brother Mahmoud Karzai and Haseen Fahim, the son of his vice president and former Northern Alliance warlord Marshal Mohammad Fahim. Some of the money was used to buy real estate in Dubai. When a real estate bust occurred in that country, the value of those properties as collateral plummeted.
With recipients unable to service or repay their debts, the bank teetered on the edge of insolvency with potentially dire consequences for the entire Afghan financial system, as desperate crowds gathered to withdraw their deposits. In the end, the bank was taken over by an impoverished Afghan government, which undoubtedly means that the American taxpayer will end up paying for the mismanagement and corruption.
Just as the Ben Ali clique outdid itself in corruption, so, too, Karzai’s circle is full of crooks. American diplomats (among others) have, for instance, accused his brother Wali Ahmed of deep involvement in the heroin trade. With dark humor, the American embassy in Kabul reported last January that Hamid Karzai had nominated, and parliament had accepted, for the counter-narcotics post in the cabinet one Zarar Ahmad Moqbel. He had earlier been Deputy Interior Minister, but was removed for corruption. Another former Deputy Interior Minister evidently even informed embassy officials that “Moqbel was supported by the drug mafia, to include Karzai’s younger half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai and Arif Khan Noorzai.” This is being alleged of Afghanistan's current counter-narcotics czar!
Or take the example of Juma Khan Hamdard, whom Karzai appointed governor of Paktya Province in the Pashtun-dominated eastern part of Afghanistan. A little over a year ago, the embassy accused him of being the leader of “a province-wide corruption scheme.” He is said to have been “the central point of a vast corruption network involving the provincial chief of police and several Afghan ministry line directors.”
According to that WikiLeaks-released cable, Hamdard’s network had set up a sophisticated money-skimming operation aimed at milking U.S. funds going into reconstruction projects. They gamed the bids on the contracts to do the work and then took cuts at every stage from groundbreaking to ribbon-cutting.
In addition, Governor Hamdard was reported to have longstanding ties to the Hizb-i Islami militia/party movement of Gulbaddin Hikmatyar, one of the Pashtun guerrilla leaders trying to expel the U.S. and NATO from the country, who, U.S. officials claim, is in turn in a vague alliance with the Taliban. Hamdard allegedly also has a business in Dubai in which Hikmatyar’s son is a partner, and is accused in the cable of funneling jewels and drug money to Hikmatyar loyalists. As with Tunisia, the public rhetoric of counterterrorism belies a corrupt and duplicitous ruling elite that may, by its actions, foster rather than forestall radicalism.
For a superpower obsessed with conspiracy theories and invested in the status quo, knowing everything, it turns out, means knowing nothing at all. WikiLeaks has done us the favor, however, of releasing a harsh set of truths. Hard-line policies such as those of the Algerian generals or of Uzbekistan’s Karimov often radicalize economically desperate and oppressed populations. As a result, U.S. backing has a significant probability of boomeranging sooner or later. Elites, confident that they will retain such backing as long as there is an al-Qaeda cell anywhere on the planet, tend to overreach, plunging into cultures of corruption and self-enrichment so vast that they undermine economies, while producing poverty, unemployment, despair, and ultimately widespread public anger.
It is not that the United States should be, in John Quincy Adams’s phrase, going out into the world to find dragons to slay. Washington is no longer all-powerful, if it ever was, and President Obama’s more realistic foreign policy is a welcome change from George W. Bush’s frenetic interventionism.
Nonetheless, Obama has left in place, or in some cases strengthened, one of the worst aspects of Bush-era policy: a knee-jerk support for self-advertised pro-Western secularists who promise to block Muslim fundamentalist parties (or, in the end, anyone else) from coming to power. There should be a diplomatic middle path between overthrowing governments on the one hand, and backing odious dictatorships to the hilt on the other.
It’s time for Washington to signal a new commitment to actual democracy and genuine human rights by simply cutting off military and counterterrorism aid to authoritarian and corrupt regimes that are, in any case, digging their own graves.
Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan. His latest book, Engaging the Muslim World, is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He runs the Informed Comment website. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Cole discusses Washington’s backing of corrupt autocratic regimes globally, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.
Copyright 2011 Juan Cole