Saturday, March 28, 2009

Doing Business with Dictators

Parade magazine this week presented their annual list of the world’s 10 worst dictators. Number one on the list is Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, who also rated cover treatment for a story about his government’s campaign of rape and violence against women in his country.

Number two on the list is Sudan President Omar al-Bashir, whose regime has been accused by the U.S. government and others of engaging in genocide against residents of the three Darfur provinces in his country. He currently is the target of an international arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court.

Other African leaders on the list are Eritrea President Isayas Afwerki in 8th place and Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in 10th place. There are six more African leaders in a second list of 10 dictators cited by Parade: Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea (14th), Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia (16th), Idriss Deby of Chad (17th), King Mswati III of Swaziland (18th), Paul Biya of Cameroon (19th) and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (20th).

These African leaders are considered dictators for actions ranging from rigging elections in their favor to crushing dissent to making their citizens disappear – temporarily or permanently. Various human rights reports confirm the validity of these accusations. Still, we have ties to these leaders because of our political and economic needs.

Zimbabwe has long been the target of criticism, but it remains an American trading partner because of the nickel and ferrochromium used in making steel. The next major source of ferrochromium is Russia, but we don’t want to be that beholden to them. Zimbabwe has been cast out of the ranks of African Growth and Opportunity Act beneficiaries, but that has hurt Zimbabwean businesses and not the government. We have placed almost every sanction known to man on Sudan, except for an embargo on gum arabic, probably the only strategic agricultural product, and Sudan is by far the world’s leading producer of quality gum arabic. Since we need gum arabic for uses ranging from pharmaceuticals to soft drinks, we have left this door to trade open with a nation accused of killing its own citizens on a massive scale.

Others on the list produce oil in significant amounts, such as Equatorial Guinea, or have strategic political importance, such as Egypt. Therefore, necessity leads us to do business with or provide aid in large amounts to governments we criticize and sometimes sanction. For those with little economic or political importance, our sanctions are more severe and our isolation is more complete. While this arrangement is not without its logic, it does seem hypocritical, and it undermines our moral authority. As we have learned and continue to experience, expedience carries its own cost. We just haven’t yet paid a steep price for practicing it.

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